Feb. 21, 2014 – Energy development has long occurred near populated areas, and that will not only continue, but increase, as populations spread and energy demand grows. The question and challenge, according to Thursday’s speaker in the spring EENR Speaker Series at the University of Houston Law Center, is who will control that development?
Whether it is drilling, “fracking,” solar, or wind, energy development, raises safety, land use, environmental, and nuisance-based concerns, said Professor Hannah Wiseman of Florida State University College of Law. Reactions to those concerns in the form of laws and regulations vary from state to state and municipality to municipality, ranging from outright bans and NIMBY (not in my backyard) to just about anything goes. The trend among states, she said, is toward centralization of oil and gas regulation. Court decisions on standards and jurisdictions have been mixed, she told a lunch hour gathering of students and faculty as part of the spring speakers series sponsored by the Environment, Energy & Natural Resources Center.
Minnesota law may prove a workable model, she said, as counties are allowed to impose more stringent standards than the state, but a commission can review and overrule if they go too far.
Wiseman, who teaches Energy Law, Environmental Law, and Land Use Regulation, said the impact on a community can be undeniably substantial. She opened a slide presentation with an aerial photo of a community in Pennsylvania dotted with shale gas well sites and the web of interconnecting access roads leading to them. Fort Worth has more than 1,800 wells within the city limits, she said. Kansas has banned wind farms because the giant towers with rotating blades are considered a nuisance. The turbines are considered eyesores, causing a “flicker” or “strobe” effect of sunlight across the landscape.
Her presentation, “Allocating Energy Governance,” asked: Which governing body should regulate, which has the greater stake – federal, regional, state, or local, and should even homeowner and neighborhood associations have a say -- as each has a strong argument and special interest? She said federal or regional control would bring more resources and expertise in assessing impact as well as a broader concern for issues such as water use over a greater area; states also would have more resources and historical knowledge of development regulations; municipalities are closer to the development, dealing with noise, a need for improved infrastructure, or daily annoyances.
But states and municipalities also may be conflicted in their attitude toward energy development. In “a race to the bottom,” Wiseman said, some states lower regulatory standards to compete for development projects or investment in research. Municipalities counter the NIMBY factor with the economic benefit a community can gain through hotel bookings, retail sales, restaurants, housing, and other areas boosted by development projects.
The answer to successful energy development with minimal impact, Wiseman said, is a balance among all governing stakeholders.