After months of work, updates to Norman’s oil and gas regulations may not have the bite environmental reformers say they want. The proposed code changes will come before the Norman City Council on Tuesday, the sole item up for detailed discussion and adoption at the 6:30 p.m. meeting.
“I think the ordinance we’re going to adopt on Tuesday goes a long way toward strengthening our ordinance,” Mayor Cindy Rosenthal said. “There are some real and necessary changes.”
City leaders spent months looking at the city’s code regulating oil and gas permits and safety requirements. The long hours of research, countless council discussion and meetings with stakeholders culminated in a number of proposed updates to the city ordinance.
Before city leaders could move forward, however, state lawmakers began work on a bill that would usurp municipal authority regarding bans on fracking and other drilling operations. Gov. Mary Fallin signed Senate Bill 809 into law on May 29. It goes into effect Aug. 21.
Rosenthal said the bill may have been an overreaction. Regardless, the city will move forward with ordinance changes that will improve safety and other protections for the city. She said there were always two primary motivators for the update of the city’s oil and gas regs.
“We started work on this ordinance to deal with public safety issues — fencing around oil and gas operations where we now have encroachment,” Rosenthal said. “The other was to protect our water supply.”
While the bill allows cities to enact “reasonable ordinances concerning road use, traffic, noise, and odors incidental to oil or gas operations within its boundaries provided those regulations are not inconsistent with Corporation Commission regulations,” according to city staff reports, it also prohibits cities from banning oil or gas operations within city limits.
“We always felt the things we were doing with our ordinance were within our power, and they are reasonable,” Rosenthal said. “Ninety percent of this ordinance is exactly what we were talking about six months ago.”
Norman never intended to ban fracking
In Norman, a prohibition on drilling was highly unlikely. The city gleans royalties on oil operations of wells on land it owns. The city also owns and operates a CNG station with compressed natural gas purchased from ONG. Because ONG sources local natural gas almost exclusively, that means much of that gas has been obtained by fracking — the primary means of obtaining gas in Oklahoma.
While a ban was never Norman’s intention, greater safety precautions and protections of the watershed were goals.
Additionally, some of the code changes were simple housekeeping measures, eliminating redundancy of items already under the scope of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, eliminating inconsistency and updating the language.
Safety features in the proposed update of city code include setback and well site fencing requirements which are allowed under SB 809. But because the bill puts a prohibition on prohibition, any requirement that essentially acts as a ban of drilling operations can be challenged.
To deal with this problem, Norman city attorneys have added a new section to the proposed oil and gas ordinance to allow oil and gas operators to appeal to the Board of Adjustment. If a requirement of Norman’s ordinance acts as a ban in an unusual circumstance, the appeal process allows an out for the operator and for the city.
City staff is proposing two different types of appeals that can be taken to the Board of Adjustment. First, an operator may appeal a decision or interpretation of the Oil and Gas Inspector. Second, an operator can request relief from the requirements of the oil and gas ordinance.
The Board of Adjustment will consider each request for relief “as a variance to be granted upon a finding that a strict application or literal interpretation of the provisions of this ordinance would effectively ban the operator from accessing subsurface minerals,” according to staff reports.
Oklahoma City has a similar process for approving drilling permits through its Board of Adjustment. Appeals of Board of Adjustment decisions would go to District Court.
Environmentalists say regs don’t go far enough
“The current ordinance, as it’s written, has largely been authored by oil and gas interests,” Norman resident and environmental activist Casey Holcomb said. “I’ve put in open records requests since March and the city wanted to charge me $500-plus in search fees just to fulfill these open records requests. They also said there might be further legal fees because the city attorney’s office might have to review and redact some of the information.”
Holcomb asked for emails between the city of Norman and the Oklahoma Independent Oil Association and between the city and the Oklahoma Mineral Rights Association.
“I put in a similar request to the city of Stillwater and I got a response within about five days,” Holcomb said. “If the city is this concerned about releasing information about their correspondence with oil companies … I’m very curious what they’re trying to hide — why they won’t just release those emails.”
Holcomb said Stillwater had no search fees or charges and fulfilled the request promptly with a pdf document listing the requested information.
“We’re looking into filing a lawsuit against the city of Norman for violating the Open Records Act,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb also said the Red Earth Sierra Club has sent the city some proposed ordinance amendments dealing with air quality and water.
“The city already has an air quality control and a noise control ordinance in place,” Holcomb said.
At the top of the wish list is to incorporate the air quality and noise control regulations that already exist into the oil and gas drilling ordinance.
One of the protections environmentalist did get into the new ordinance are stream planning corridor protections. That rule has the industry fighting back. There have been requests by industry officials for a delay on Norman’s vote, pending a decision by the attorney general.
Norman City attorney Jeff Bryant said the attorney general, like the governor are state administrators and that municipalities may not be subject to AG’s opinions. Rosenthal confirmed that the oil and gas industry is “playing hardball” but said the city is ready to move forward.
Holcomb said the rule protecting the stream planning corridor was a major victory for those who are worried about protecting Norman’s watershed.
“That’s already in the zoning ordinance,” Holcomb said. “The other things we’re pushing for are already in the city code. We’re just saying enforce what’s already on the books — that should not be controversial.”
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission regulates the oil and gas industry and has adopted the Oklahoma Water Resource Board’s water quality standards. Pollution is prohibited and spills into state waters are required to be reported within 24 hours of discovery.
Rosenthal said the city will work with the Corporation Commission to help protect the Lake Thunderbird watershed. There are provisions for setting up special rules. She is expected to speak on the topic more in depth at Tuesday’s meeting.
Big government v. local control
Whether Norman was an intentional target of SB 809, it’s at least the second time in as many years the state has trampled on Norman’s authority to set local rules based on the values of the community. In 2014, the Oklahoma’s Ethics Commission raised allowed contribution levels and added a clause that municipalities could not further restrict campaign financing.
That change all but eliminated Norman’s Election Commission. The commission has remained in place primarily as an educational body to help candidates comply with Ethics Commission rules. Additionally, Norman does still post the campaign finance reports online prior to the election.
This article was written by Joy Hampton from The Norman Transcript, Okla. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.