Athens Passes Fracking Ban, Three Other Ohio Cities Don't

Athens approves fracking ban in landslide; ‘we won’t quit’ is the mantra in Youngstown.

Down but not out: After frack ban fails in Youngstown, Ohio, for the fourth time, activist Susie Beiersdorfer refuses to accept defeat. "We don't lose until we quit...We can't quit," she says. Credit: Preparation for a presentation on fracking/Bill Baker

The college town of Athens, Ohio voted by 78 percent to outlaw fracking and related activities on Tuesday, standing in stark contrast to three other towns in the state that failed to pass similar measures.

Athens joined the north Texas town of Denton and two southern California counties, San Benito and Mendocino, in pushing back against the fracking boom on election day.

Every local fracking ban victory "is a win for the movement," said Susie Beiersdorfer, an anti-fracking activist in Ohio.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuels. The controversial process has been a boon for the economy. In Ohio, it has recently driven a near doubling of oil and gas production.

Increasingly, communities such as Athens are acting on their concerns about the potential health and environmental impacts of the process, and warning that the existing rules aren't strong enough.

According to a statement by Kate Sinding, senior attorney and director of the Community Fracking Defense Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council: "We are seeing a growing nationwide trend of communities standing up for their right to protect their residents when their state and the federal government has failed to...the message is clear: Americans are demanding the right to determine their own fracking fate."

Under the ballot measure called "Athens Bill of Rights," the following activities are now prohibited: "the exploration for, and extraction of, shale gas and oil, along with associated activities, including the disposal of associated wastes, into injection wells within the City."

By passing this ordinance, Athens is vulnerable to a potential lawsuit by industry or state government. That's because Ohio law gives the state—not towns or counties—"sole and exclusive authority to regulate" oil and gas activities.

This summer, two drilling companies sued the Ohio town of Broadview Heights over its ban, which passed in November 2012.

The threat of litigation isn't unique to Ohio. Denton is already gearing up for a legal fight. And in Colorado, fracking bans that passed in two towns in 2012 were overturned in court. Now the communities are appealing the decision. This summer, after years of litigation, New York's high court ruled to allow two towns to keep their anti-drilling bans.

Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the industry trade group Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said it has no plans to sue Athens, because it sees the ban as having "no real impact" on the industry.

"We don't even campaign against" these efforts, said Chadsey.

Most of Ohio sits atop the Utica Shale formation. Although the town of Athens, which has a population of roughly 23,000, is within this region, drilling isn't currently taking place there.

But the town is home to some of the industry's waste disposal. A few oil and gas operators from across the state bring their liquid waste produced during drilling to Athens to be injected underground in what's called injection wells. Pumping this waste deep below the surface has been tied to an increase in the number of earthquakes shaking Ohio.

A Victory and a Disgrace

Surrounded by some of the state's largest parks and forests, and home to Ohio University, Athens has pushed against the industry for over a year.

Industry opponents initially got a bill of rights on the ballot last fall restricting fracking and related activities within the city and 20 miles beyond. Several residents looking to lease their land to the energy companies protested the initiative. They successfully argued that the measure overreached in its attempt to dictate activities outside the city, forcing the issue off the ballot.

This year, a new ordinance limited to activities within the city earned enough signatures to get on the Nov. 4 ballot.

On Tuesday, 2,245 people voted in favor of the measure; 623 voters opposed it.

Activists familiar with Athens called the overwhelming support for the measure no surprise. The Athens News endorsed the measure in late September, arguing: "A local community should have the right to protect its air, water and quality of life against high-impact industrial activities. The fact that state law expressly says that Ohio cities and towns don't have this basic right is a scandal and disgrace."

Athens is the fifth community in Ohio, along with Broadview Heights, Mansfield, Oberlin and Yellow Springs, to pass a measure prohibiting oil and gas activity in the last three years, according to the Akron Beacon Journal.

In contrast to Athens, the towns of Gates Mills, Kent and Youngstown did not have enough support to pass their own measures this year.

This was the fourth time the citizens of Youngstown, a town in northeastern Ohio close to the Pennsylvania border, failed to pass their anti-fracking measure. And they lost by their largest margin so far: 15.7 percent. Previously, the measure got more support with each successive election: it lost by 13.7 percent in May 2013, 9.7 percent in November 2013, and, most recently, 8.3 percent, in May 2014.

Youngstown Mayor John McNally, who opposed the ban, told a local news anchor after the measure's defeat, "I don't think there's any reason to revisit this issue anytime soon."

Still, the mayor didn't rule out the possibility that activists may try again. "I thought after last time the issue was sort of done and then it sort of popped its head up later in the year," he said. "So nothing would surprise me."

Biersdorfer, a fracking activist who lives in Youngstown, told InsideClimate News that everyone—local officials, unions, even churches—worked against her side. And, she added, "we were certainly outspent."

A union opposing the ban, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396, spent over $70,000 on this election. The ban supporters spent less than $3,000.

But Beiersdorfer refused to admit defeat. "We don't lose until we quit," she said. Then she added, "We can't quit."

The statement from NRDC's Sinding echoed those sentiments: "Where these measures did not pass yesterday—we know from past experience that as long as the oil and gas industry runs amok, the local fight is far from over."

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