Athens City Council's vote last week to introduce a fracking ban in the city's wellhead protection area had me arguing with myself all week.
Here's more or less how the argument went:
Smith A: This is crazy. Why would a city ignore the legal advice of its attorney, and move toward approving an amendment that's in direct defiance of state law? H.B. 278, which passed in 2004, explicitly states that the state Division of Mineral Resources Management "is given exclusive state authority to regulate oil and gas exploration and operations, while the role of local government is reduced."
That seems pretty straightforward. Athens can't regulate this stuff.
Smith B: Who cares? This is a shot across the bow of the oil-and-gas lobbyists who got this passed in the Ohio Legislature. I'm proud of the City Council members who are putting a higher priority on water protection than kowtowing to the oil-and-gas industry and its lap-dog legislators.
Smith A: My point would be that they're not accomplishing anything by defying a state law, other than pandering to voters. They've been told the state DMRM has the authority; the law clearly states the DMRM has the authority; and if they ever tried to regulate an oil and gas operation, they'd be slapped down so quick it would make your eyes cross.
Smith B: That's just cynical, the idea that this is only political posturing. My response: Why not do it? What's there to lose? If enough local governments take a stand on this, maybe that will pressure the state Legislature to change the law. After all, isn't the General Assembly dominated by Republicans? And aren't Republicans the biggest champions of local control?
Smith A: Ha, ha, ha (choking noise). Oh, let me get a drink of water. (Moments later…) You don't really expect politicians, Republicans especially, to be consistent about their principles, do you? It was only last week that not one GOP member of Congress supported a bill that would have banned employers from invading potential employees' privacy by requesting their Facebook log-in information. And who supports these Big Brother intrusions on people's private lives? Why it's the party that's always crowing about constitutional rights, accountability and the sacred rights of the individual.
Smith B: What does that have to do with H.B. 278?
Smith A: It has everything to do with it. In both cases, the Republicans have made a very clear decision to allow their fealty to business interests to override their principles when it comes to local control in the one case, and personal freedom in the other. Bloody hypocrites, that's what they are.
Smith B: Smitty, boy, you're going to pee your pants if you don't pull it together. And you're confusing me; I still don't know what this has to do with your slamming City Council's majority for taking steps to protect the city water.
Smith A: I'm just saying that appealing to Republican lawmakers' supposed sensibilities about the importance of local control isn't likely to erode their much stronger support for the state's business interests.
And on another topic, earlier you asked what's there to lose by defying the state on local oil and gas regulation? There's plenty to lose, if this ever goes to the courts. You have council members recklessly proclaiming their intent to break the law in a public meeting, and on tape. You don't think that won't come back to haunt them if this matter ever goes to a judge?
Smith B: I still think it took a lot of guts, and I'm proud of them. And from a historical, journalistic perspective, it really is refreshing to see council members not going the safe route. I've been following Athens City Council since moving here in the mid-'80s, and these people rarely do anything surprising or interesting. It's like covering a sewing club, except without the sharp repartee.
Smith A: Hey, I moved here in the mid-'80s, too! But anyway, if you follow that line of reasoning, then you must really be getting a kick out of those anti-fluoride scolds camping out at City Council every week.
Smith B: You're kidding, right? Don't get me started on those people; let's just suffice to say that if they rerouted their substantial energies into something that the public actually cared about, they might get more news coverage. I've been using more fluoride toothpaste lately, just as a personal statement. The other day, I emptied a big tube of fluoride toothpaste all over my naked body and pranced around in the shower singing, "I Love Fluoride," for an hour – and wasted hundreds of gallons of water!
Smith A: You're an idiot in so many ways. Those anti-fluoride people aren't hurting anybody, and if they ask me about your slurs, I'll tell them nobody cares what you think anyway. Plus, your teeth are nothing to write home to mamma about.
Smith B: Hey, leave mamma out of this; she always liked me best anyway. But back to fracking, I think one thing that's not being sufficiently considered is the fact that oil and gas development with fracking is unlikely to happen in our water wellfields anytime soon. In fact, recent reports suggest that horizontal hydraulic fracturing probably won't be coming to Athens County at all.
Smith A: Yes, Smitty, I know. I'm the one who reported that story first. And if you read it carefully, you'd know that nobody really knows what's underground in our county. There might be nothing, and there might be the sort of black gold that sent the Clampetts to Beverly Hills. Being proactive about protecting our water supplies is the smart thing to do, and I'm amazed that anyone's criticizing council about this.
Smith B: As I said, the point is that the city can't regulate oil and gas, so this is a pointless, futile exercise in political pandering.
Smith A: And like I said, you're a knucklehead. Let's go have a beer or five.