Marietta to back fracking lease ad

MARIETTA – A majority of Marietta City Council members have indicated they will vote to approve legislation authorizing the city’s safety-service director to advertise for bids to lease up to 95 acres of city property to oil and gas interests.

Five of the seven council members who attended a lands, buildings and parks committee meeting Tuesday said they would support the legislation, but at least two of those also noted they would not favor entering into a final lease contract unless an ordinance is passed to protect the city’s water well fields.

“I will go along with this bid advertisement, but I will not vote to lease any city property until a wellhead protection ordinance is in place,” said Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward.

Councilman Harley Noland, D-at large, and chairman of the lands, buildings and parks committee, said he, too, would vote to go out for bids on the proposed property lease, but agreed with McCauley that wellhead protection is needed.

McCauley has been pushing for legislation that would put teeth into the city’s wellhead protection code by adding penalties for anyone who violates the protection ordinance.

Council members Michael Mullen, I-at large, Steve Thomas, D-3rd Ward, and Roger Kalter, D-1st Ward, also indicated they would support advertising for bids on the property. But Kalter said if a final lease contract is approved he wanted any revenue to be put toward water and sewer infrastructure and not simply frittered away by council.

Council members Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward, and Kathy Downer, D-at large, said they would not support advertising for bids on the proposed lease.

In January, MNW Energy LLC, an investor/buyer for Tulsa, Okla.-based Protege Energy III, offered to lease 35 acres of city property that would be included among 6,100 surrounding acres for a horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operation that would be on property outside the city limits.

The city property would be leased for $4,750 an acre, plus a 17.5 percent royalty based on any product Protege would retrieve from the drilling operation.

Since that original offer, the city administration has suggested MNW may also want to lease another 60 acres within the city limits, although Doug Mallett, chief financial officer with MNW Energy, said last week the company had not been considering that additional acreage.

City law director Paul Bertram III had requested a poll of the council members during Tuesday’s committee meeting to determine if there would be enough votes to support the measure during Thursday’s regular council meeting at 7:30 p.m. in the community building at Lookout Park.

“This does not obligate the city to lease the property, but it just authorizes the safety-service director to advertise for bids on the lease,” he said. “We’ll need a two-thirds majority to pass the final legislation, and I did not want to have the clerks in the law director’s office type up the legislation if there would not be enough votes.”

Bertram said six pieces of legislation would have to be developed, one for each section of property the city would offer for lease to oil and gas interests.

The original 35 acres requested by MNW included parcels of city-owned land behind the Wal-Mart complex and along Goose Run Road in Marietta Township.

The additional 60 acres recommended by the city administration would include city garage property off Alderman Street, Buckeye Park property, and the Kroger Wetlands off Acme Street.

Bertram noted an open letter to city council from an Athens-based “Bill of Rights Committee” urged council members to pass legislation to ban hydraulic fracturing activity within the city of Marietta, or to put the issue before city voters in a ballot referendum.

But Bertram said the ability to ban fracking inside the city limits is not within city council’s jurisdiction because the state has given the Ohio Department of Natural Resources authority to regulate oil and gas drilling activity within municipalities.

“You can’t simply pass a resolution banning drilling activity in the city,” he said. The Athens City Council has adopted such a measure, but Bertram said he does not believe that legislation would stand up in court, according to the Ohio Revised Code.

Bertram said council could, however, regulate some fracking-related activities like trucks hauling hazardous materials through town and protection of some city infrastructure, streets and zoning.

Mullen said the city has no jurisdiction over oil and gas activities, and the measure being considered during Thursday’s council meeting will only be related to possibly leasing city land for oil and gas operations.

If a final lease contract is approved with an oil and gas company, Mayor Joe Matthews has said the contract would not allow drilling pads to be developed on the city properties.