As Cities Consider Tougher Drilling Rules, Oklahoma Lawmakers Eye Limits on ‘Local Control’

  • Joe Wertz
Protestors outside the meeting held signs and chanted "Stop fracking now" and "No more drilling."

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

Protestors outside a public meeting in Oklahoma City about an oil company's proposal to drill near Lake Hefner held signs and chanted "Stop fracking now" and "No more drilling."

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a statewide ban on fracking in 2014, Oklahoma Rep. Casey Murdock took notice. After voters in the city of Denton, Texas — just 40 miles south of the Oklahoma state line — approved a fracking ban in the Nov. 4 election, the Republican representative from Felt took action.

“There is your anti-oil group,” the freshman lawmaker says. “We have activists outside the state that have come in and they’re pushing in these college cities.”

Murdock’s measure, House Bill 1395, is one of at least eight “local control” bills under consideration by the 2015 Legislature. The bills differ in the details, but they all limit, in some way, the power municipalities have to regulate oil and gas drilling or related activities, like fracking.

Murdock says he’s responding to calls from mineral owners eager to protect their oil and gas interests in the lawmaker’s three-county district in the Oklahoma Panhandle.

“The mineral owners own that mineral underneath there,” he says. “ You can say it’s a property right, too. They should be able to go after and get the minerals that they own.”

Municipal scrutiny

Residents concerned about water use, water contamination, air pollution and earthquakes have called for stricter oil and gas rules or outright bans on drilling activities in cities and towns throughout the state — and across the country.

Norman residents have questioned whether oil companies should be allowed to use drinking water for drilling, and activists there are pushing for tougher municipal rules for the oil and gas industry.

In Oklahoma City, public fury over an energy company’s proposal to drill near Lake Hefner, a city water supply, pushed the company to withdraw its application.

The city of Stillwater is considering tougher rules for oil and gas operations within the city limits. Stillwater city Councilor Gina Noble says municipal government is the proper venue for such debates.

”Municipalities are still the best level of government that can address local zoning matters, and that’s what this is really about to us — zoning,” she says.

‘Reasonable’ rules

While it’s too early to know if any of the proposals will make it through Oklahoma’s four-month legislative session, a version written by House Speaker Jeff Hickman, R-Fairview, sailed through a hearing of the the House Environmental Law subcommittee and is up for consideration by the full House.

Speaker Hickman’s office didn’t grant StateImpact’s request for an interview. But, in the subcommittee hearing, he insisted HB 2178 preserves local governments’ zoning authority in establishing setbacks and regulating things like noise, odor and traffic — provided those rules are “reasonable.”

The definition of “reasonable” is open for interpretation, Rep. Cory Williams pointed out in the subcommittee hearing. Williams, D-Stillwater, was the only lawmaker who questioned the bill during the hearing, and he was the only one to vote against it.

Williams also questioned why state lawmakers would consider overruling local government officials while simultaneously decrying federal overreach into state government affairs.

Hickman responded, saying oil and gas royalties are statewide assets that should be regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, the oil and gas regulators that are elected by voters statewide.

Limited government?

The final language in HB 2178 could be changed during the session, or the measure could stall out. Or one of the other bills addressing similar issues could gain momentum. There is a lot of money at stake. Mineral owners’ groups and the oil industry, which spends a lot of money in Oklahoma politics, say the state should have the final say in energy industry rules and regulations.

Noble, the Stillwater city councilor, worries that state legislation limiting the authority of cities and towns will make it harder for everyday residents to have a voice on local issues, like the oil well next door. She says lawmakers at the state Capitol should practice what they always preach.

“Our state is very fond of limited government, and I just see anything that adds more government, especially to a municipality — does it really gel with our wishes for limited government?”