Youngstown, Ohio owes a lot to natural gas. With the development of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, northeast Ohio is being economically revitalized. In the short term, construction of the Rover Pipeline has added thousands of construction jobs, many paying union wages offering good benefits, as well as boosting area small businesses, including hotels and restaurants. On the whole, fracking seems to be great for the area. So why has the city of Youngstown spent nearly $200,000 on ballot proposals to pass a community Bill of Rights that would ban fracking in the area?
The answer is a combination of environmental activism and state regulation that has forced the city to repeatedly pay for elections that have not only failed but would be illegal under state law even if they were to get voter support. Under state law, petitions that reach a certain threshold of signatures must be placed on the ballot. A Pennsylvania-based group called Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) has placed a piece of legislation it calls the Community Bill of Rights on the ballot in Youngstown six times since 2013 and is pushing for another special election this year.
Although CELDF phrases its activism in terms of community rights, it is unabashedly environmentalist. Its website explains that the group began as a public interest law firm, but switched tactics after realizing that corporations and governments were allied to stymie environmental protection measures. The group changed its focus and instead began to work “to establish the rights of nature in law – recognizing the rights of ecosystems and natural communities to exist and thrive, and empowering people and their governments to defend and enforce these rights.”
In Youngstown, the proposed “bill of rights” guarantees residents the right to clean water, air, and soil, as well as a right to protection against the rights of corporations. The group proposing the bill wants to use it to shut down fracking operations in the Youngstown area out of fears that fossil fuel extraction will lead to environmental contamination.
A FOIA request by Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, found that the City of Youngstown and the Mahoning County Board of Elections have paid $19,219.55 to advertise the six ballot measures.
In addition to promoting the election, the City of Youngstown is responsible for the cost of printing ballots, hiring poll workers and workers to count the ballots, and finding space to host elections. This varies from year to year, depending on if the bill of rights vote requires a special election in an off year. In 2013, the city spent more than $89,500 on the special election, while during the 2016 general election, costs associated with the measure totaled a mere $5,379.
All told, the bill of rights has cost the area taxpayers $187,219 to appear on the ballot. Not discouraged by their previous defeats, Frack Free Mahoning Valley, a group that works with CELDF, has announced that it it has delivered signatures on a petition to place the measure before voters again, this time under the name of the “2017 Youngstown Drinking Water Protection Bill of Rights.”
Costs for a 2017 election could be as high as $36,000, found Energy in Depth, which notes that that is roughly equal to the annual salary for an employee of the City of Youngstown.
The waste is even more egregious since the measure would violate state law if enacted.
“In Ohio, the state has ruled over and over again that the state has primacy over oil and gas operations,” says Jackie Stewart, a director of strategic communications at FTI Consulting, which specializes in the energy and natural resources industry. “The matter has gone all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court in fact. If a measure was to be passed an operator could sue the jurisdictional body to have a right to conduct business.”
Last year, the Ohio General Assembly passed bipartisan legislation giving leeway for a proposal like the community bill of rights to be challenged in court if passed. The state law “requires a board of elections or the Secretary of State to invalidate a local initiative petition if the board or Secretary determines that the petition or any portion of it does not fall within the scope of the local government’s constitutional authority to enact ordinance.” The legislature considers fracking and mineral extraction to be issues outside of the scope of local government authority.
For the time being, the measure remains a moot point. To put it mildly, CELDF’s concerns are not shared by area residents. Each year that the measure has been placed on the ballot, it has failed to gain the necessary majority of votes. In 2016, voters rejected the Bill of Rights proposal 54 percent to 46 percent.
The expense is even stranger since no fracking actually occurs within Youngstown city limits.
“The Youngstown measure is a red herring,” Stewart said, “as there is no horizontal drilling and/or hydraulic fracturing occurring in the City of Youngstown. The actual language of the ballot measure is far more reaching than oil and gas.”
Instead of shutting down fracking projects, the bill of rights would interfere with how the city chooses to spend money on infrastructure like water and sewer. Sadly, taxpayers will likely have to pay for the chance to reject the proposal once again in 2017.