As municipalities navigate drilling ordinances, proposed OK state bill could complicate plans

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NEWCASTLE, Okla. - A fight over where people can drill oil in Newcastle is at a temporary standstill as city council members work to clarify a local ordinance, but now a proposed bill could throw a wrench in the gears of this and future decisions.

In Newcastle, there are two pending oil sites in the city whose futures lie in the balance of the council's decision. The problems came after the council changed an ordinance last June, doubling the distance a drilling site must be from their neighbor to 660 feet.

"Even after we put those into place, we found that we haven’t been real consistent in how we were defining that distance," said Newcastle Mayor Gene Reid. The ordinance doesn't clarify if the distance begins at the bore hole, or the site pad, or if it ends at the property line, or the house in question. Before moving forward with decisions on the two sites, the city council plans to better define where the "drill site" and the "separation boundary" lie.

But now proposed House Bill 2150 could raise the stakes of that decision for the city if it's enacted into law. The bill states that if an ordinance makes the logistics of drilling on a property impossible or too expensive, the owner of that land could sue the city.

"This bill would help protect private property rights, and help protect those mineral owners," said the bill's author, State Rep. John Pfeiffer (R). He said that as cities continue to grow, the limitations on where someone can drill on their own property increase as well.

"The city’s grown up around them," Pfeiffer said, "and it leaves them without the ability to collect and monetize on the property that they own."

He said the bill is building on Senate Bill 809 passed in 2015, which gave municipalities the right to set ordinances on some aspects of drilling, like setbacks and noise ordinances, but leaves the rest of the decisions to the Corporation Commission. That's why the new law would work retroactively, protecting only ordinances that were in place before 2015.

The current ordinance in Newcastle and those in many other cities would be negated.

Mayor Reid said he doesn't currently have a stance on HB 2150, but he does have concern he said is likely shared with other city and county leaders across the state.

"I don’t know that it’s good or bad," Reid said, "but anything that tends to limit the rights of the city to make decisions for their residents is concerning."

Reid said he's hoping legislators will weigh both sides of the issue, just as he has to in Newcastle.

"We do not want to stop production," Reid said. "We do not want to impede exploration, but we really are chartered to care for, and to reach those tough decisions, for both service owners and the neighbors around them."

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