COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Environmental advocates in Ohio opposed a newly added energy-bill provision Wednesday that they say would make it virtually untenable for drilling opponents to sue energy companies for withholding chemical trade secrets.
The bill, including the provision, cleared the House committee Wednesday and will likely be passed by the full House on Thursday. But House changes will have to be cleared by the Senate.
Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer said the overall bill will have a positive impact on the environment. "We've really stiffened a lot of our regulations, and I think we've made them better and safer," he said.
Under the contested provision, those eligible to sue companies that withhold chemical trade secrets would include property owners, adjacent neighbors, and any person or state agency "having an interest that is or may be adversely affected" by the chemical protected as a trade secret.
As environmental lawyers see it, the new language requires a person to prove they've been somehow hurt by the chemical in question before they know what the substance is in order to sue. But the oil and gas industry argues that some parameters must be set for trade secret challenges or frivolous lawsuits will abound.
The issue arises amid Ohio's comprehensive overhaul of its energy laws to account for the burgeoning oil and gas drilling industry, to adjust the state's clean energy standard and to make dozens of other changes. Other states in the Eastern U.S. also are negotiating legislation to govern drilling in the Marcellus and Utica shale deposits.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council said the provision establishing who has standing to sue over trade secrets would make it virtually impossible for most Ohioans to file legal action. The council had been neutral on the energy bill until the provision was tucked into it.
"Sadly, what started out as one of possibly the most ambitious chemical disclosure laws in the country has now turned into one of the most radical and anti-public right-to-know laws in the nation," Shaner said.
The Sierra Club also shifted from neutral to opposed because of the provision.
Some energy interests lined up to fight for restrictions on trade-secret lawsuits, but Assistant Director Fred Shimp of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the agency pushed to include property owners and adjacent neighbors as groups eligible to sue.
"The administration thought what was being proposed was too restrictive. We wanted to open it up," Shimp said. "We were the ones who fought for and got this amendment, saying if you're a property owner or an adjacent property owner, you automatically have legal standing to go to a court and say I want to challenge the validity of this claimed trade secret."
Criticism of the provision follows an Ohio House committee vote to address some of the environmentalists' earlier concerns by clarifying that doctors given new access to drillers' proprietary chemical recipes can share that information with public health officials.