Niles City Council Rescinds Ban: Five Takeaways

Over the past month, the Niles City Council has been dealing with buyer’s remorse since it was misled into passing an ill-advised community “bill of rights.” The measure was drafted and delivered to them by the Sierra Club and Community Environmental Legal Defense fund, with the intent to ban oil and gas development in the city.  To its credit, however, once it realized its mistake, the Niles City Council didn’t wait long to get itself up to speed on the facts.

Following presentations by the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP) and Energy In Depth, the Niles City Council gained a much better understanding of the history and execution of oil and gas development in Ohio. They also got a firsthand look at some of the pitfalls that the so called “bill of rights” resolution sought to place upon the city. Gamely, activists continued to push the Council to retain its ban on development, notwithstanding that the factual foundation upon which most of their claims were based had been severely eroded.

The result: On Wednesday, the City Council voted unanimously to rescind the community “bill of rights” measure it previously passed. The decision sends an unambiguous message that Niles is open for business and interested in partnering with companies that develop and deliver oil and gas resources safely and responsibly. And it also serves as a cautionary tale for other local municipalities that, were it not for the Niles experience, may have fallen victim to the same scam.

Of course, though the local ban campaign ultimately failed in Niles, the professional activist groups which continue to advance the effort nationwide have notched a few early victories in other jurisdictions – in each case, following the same exact blueprint and using the same exact talking points.

For better or for worse, EID now knows more about the contents of that playbook than we ever thought we would – or wanted to. Drawing on the Niles experience, here below are a few of the top takeaways – lessons on which other communities can draw as they look to defend themselves against the activists’ campaign to deny their residents the ability to develop and benefit from mineral resources to which they hold legal title.

Takeaway #1: Education is the key – and face-to-face delivery of that information is an absolute must.

Sunlight, as they say, is always the greatest disinfectant. And when it comes to turning back the tide of misinformation on oil and natural gas, education and facts stand alone as the antidote to these ill-advised bans.  When the City of Niles brought in organizations that had differing views on the measure, they were able to hear from all sides and make an informed decision. Presented with all the facts from all the angles, it’s telling that the anti-fracking crowd was soundly defeated.

The key to keeping these bans from happening is education, education, education.  The facts and science of safe and responsible development are impossible to ignore, no matter how many Gasland-style talking points the opposition provides.  Thankfully, Ohio has one of the best educators in the nation with Rhonda Reda from OOGEEP.

Energy In Depth also provided a closer look at the so called “bill of rights.”  This color by numbers approach to policy-making is being used by the opposition across the United States. Unfortunately for most people, no one takes a closer look at what the document actually says until it is too late. The “bill of rights” is rife with heavy handed language that is so vague that it could ban even a Napa auto parts store from selling goods and services.

Takeaway #2: Most of these community “Bill of Rights” documents use the same exact, purposefully vague language – and most seek to ban activities that extend well beyond oil and gas.

In the case of the Niles “bill of rights” ordinance, the legislation was written so ambiguously that, depending on how it was interpreted, the bill could have banned a host of activities that didn’t even have anything to do with oil and gas development.

How many companies do you know would want to locate in a city where it is a 3rd degree misdemeanor if they are caught supplying goods to or working for the industry? The language is so broad that it could even make it illegal to transport oil and gas related products through the city, which would basically be a moratorium on any and all economic activity.

In the case of Niles specifically, the city would have been violating the law by supplying water to the oil and gas industry, which is currently a source of public revenue for Niles.  I don’t believe there is a city in the nation that would want to be a part of that movement, especially when the nation is trying to dig itself out of a crippling recession.

Takeaway #3: Activists are happy to draft “Bill of Rights” legislation for free. But later on, when it comes time to defend the ordinance in court, the authoring organizations are nowhere to be found.   

The real sticking point of the “bill of rights” is that it is unconstitutional and would be struck down by any court.  The measure literally attempts to strip rights that are afforded to people by Ohio law and the U.S. constitution.  Thus, the provision will automatically be thrown out by any court that follows the letter of the law.

In fact, it already has been. In Penn Ridge Coal vs. Blaine Township and Range Resources vs. Blaine Township, a “bill of rights” did nothing more than cost the township money on rules that are unenforceable, which means taxpayers foot the bill for anti-fracking activism. This is in addition to the cost of lost jobs and foregone economic investment.

Takeaway #4: Your ability to succeed derives from your ability to develop and grow durable partnerships.

Thankfully, oil and gas is an issue that is generally not considered overly partisan.  Though they might not agree on much, Chambers of Commerce and local labor unions both see the enormous economic potential that oil and gas development is bringing to the region.  In northeastern Ohio, the building trades are seeing a huge increase in work thanks to local development activities.  The local Chambers are seeing a tremendous growth in companies looking to locate in the region. In addition, the oil and gas industry is partially responsible for making the Mahoning Valley a leader in economic growth.

The level of support for development is really something to behold: The Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396, the Laborers’ International Union of North America, the Western Reserve Building & Construction Trades Council, and the Youngstown-Warren Chamber of Commerce all voiced their concerns on the ban because they know oil and gas development is safe and bringing life back to the Mahoning Valley.

Takeaway #5: Whatever their position or personal philosophy, local folks don’t like being lied to.

Some opposed to oil and gas development will stop at nothing to misinform elected officials.  Some will regurgitate Josh Fox’s prepared talking points as if they are scientific assessments, such as well casing failure rates or studies that have been refuted time and time again.  While the opposition relies on emotion and misinformation to pass these types of bans, a little research goes a long way. People are smart enough to see through the smoke and mirrors, and once they realize they’ve been duped, it does not leave them in a happy state.

City councils would be well-served to do their own research before passing any ordinance, be it related to oil and gas development or anything else. And when anti-fracking groups come bearing a draft ordinance or proposed set of rules, they’re more than likely trying to sell the town a bill of goods.

Thanks, but no thanks.

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