Ohio “Frackgate” raises concerns about regulators

A Freedom of Information Act request in February by the Ohio chapter of the Sierra Club began a series of events raising concerns over the relationship of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the oil and gas industry in Ohio which it is supposed to regulate.

The FOI request was prompted by Gov. John Kasich’s failure to follow through on a 2011 law permitting fracking, a controversial form of drilling for natural gas, in Ohio’s state parks.

At that time polls showed 70 percent of the public was not in favor of the bill. During the public testimony session 39 people testified against the bill with only one testifying in favor of it. That person was the then-director of the ODNR.

Since the law was passed, however, there has been very little action on fracking in the parks. The law calls for the governor to appoint a commission to oversee drilling on public lands, but those appointments have yet to be made. The Sierra Club wanted to find out why this was the case. 

The FOI request uncovered a 2012 memo from officials at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and  Kasich administration officials calling for strategies to promote fracking in Ohio state parks. Included in the memo were lists of allies and opponents, strategies to discredit citizen groups that were concerned about the dangers of fracking, and plans for public relations efforts to convince the public to support fracking in the parks.

Listed among the allies were the giant oil engineering firm Halliburton, the Chamber of Commerce, some media outlets, as well the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a lobbying group.

Among the opponents listed were the Ohio Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Ohio legislators Rep. Nickie Antonio, D- Lakewood, and Rep. Robert Hagan, D-Youngstown.

In response to being named in the memo Reps. Antonio and Hagan held a press conference calling for an investigation into what Hagan termed “Frackgate.”  The outcry over the memo prompted Kasich to announce he had  abandoned plans to frack in the state parks because he believed the “regulatory structure is not yet mature enough.” It is unclear what motivated him to take this stand.  There is no evidence that plans to engage in a PR program to promote fracking in the parks were carried out and the industry is not pressuring the governor to act according to the law.

“It is what it is, said Tom Steward, vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association. “At this time, it is not a ripe issue. That is an issue for the governor.” 

On Mar. 4 Food and Water Watch and other environmental groups sent a request to the Ohio Speaker of the House, Rep. Bill Batchelder, calling for an investigation into the “collusion” between the Kasich Administration and the oil and gas industry in Ohio. Explaining why this request was made, Alison Auciello, Ohio organizer for Food and Water Watch said, “The specific naming of organizations and legislators as opposition groups raises questions about how seriously the ODNR and the administration are taking their duties to protect Ohio residents over the interests of the oil and gas industry.”

Photo: Environmental activists demonstrating against Ohio Gov. Kasich. Anne Caruso/PW

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly showed the author as Rick Nagin. The author is Anne Caruso.