6 takeaways from the ODNR fracking memo scandal

fracking well

A fracking well looms large above eastern Ohio’s rolling hills (courtesy of Inhabitat).

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has found itself in hot water after the Ohio Sierra Club obtained a document that showed the agency planned to actively promote oil and gas drilling in Ohio’s state parks. The memo details ODNR’s plans to actively counter opposition from environmental groups, which it labels as “eco-left pressure groups” and “skilled propagandists,” by collaborating with industry allies and like-minded third parties, including the Ohio Oil and Gas Alliance, Halliburton, and the US Chamber of Congress.

I don’t feel like spending an entire post responding to the document; there are plenty of stories about it already. Plunderbund has an excellent piece on the scandal, which is well worth reading in full:

While the document displays a startling collusion between the fossil fuel industry and the agency that’s supposed to regulate it, one should expect little more from the Kasich administration and its allies in the Statehouse. The Ohio GOP has devolved into little more than a mouthpiece for the industry at this point.

Just last month, Tony Stewart, the president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, told the Dispatch that it “came up with the methodology” behind HB 375, the GOP bill to rewrite Ohio’s tax laws for the industry. The bill, which makes Gov. Kasich’s original proposal look downright progressive, guarantees that Ohio would continue to give away its natural resources for pennies on the dollar.

Despite the inherent risks associated with fracking, the Ohio GOP seems far more interested in colluding with the industry that protecting the health and well-being of its constituents and the environment of our state. The state has bent over backwards to import fracking wastewater from Pennsylvania – trucking in more than 100 million gallons in 2011 alone – despite the fact that injection wells have caused more than 100 earthquakes near Youngstown. ODNR also allows fracking companies to dispose their waste, which can contain the radioactive element radium, in municipal dumps; the Ohio Environmental Council has labeled this practice “dump and glow.”

I just have a few additional thoughts to share on this story:

  1. This story does not reflect well on John Kasich, who has consistently tried to position himself as a “compassionate conservative” and seems to fancy himself a Republican leader in the model of Ronald Reagan. Having your administration actually develop a list that demonizes environmental groups and Democratic State Senators as “adversaries” who are attempting to “create public panic” and must be taken down comes off as a hell of a lot more Nixonian than Reaganesque.
  2. Memo to Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols, part 1: If you are trying to distance yourself from a politically damaging story by claiming that the Governor’s office was unaware of what ODNR was up to, maybe it’s a bad idea to call the environmentalists who raised this issue “extremist groups.” It’s tough to distance yourself from a document by parroting its language and implicitly endorsing it.
  3. Memo to Rob Nichols, part 2: Oh, and you’re probably going to need to do a better job explaining why 8 members of the administration were invited to a meeting to discuss the strategy that exact same day that the document was drafted. I’m sure there’s a logical explanation.
  4. If the Ohio GOP honestly believes that moderate environmental groups like the Ohio Environmental Council and NRDC are “extremists” and “propagandists,” they really need to get their heads checked. I guess when you’re that far to the right, all center-left environmentalists look like “enviro-socialist rent seekers,” to quote Senator Bill Seitz.
  5. I have my doubts that administration is only pushing drilling in state parks “to ensure a balance between wise use and protection of our natural resources for the benefit of all,” as the memo claims. It’s hard to believe that the same elected officials who are going out of their way to keep Ohio’s oil and gas severance taxes substantially lower than any other drilling state – willingly forgoing at least $800 million in tax revenues – are pushing fracking because “it will provide millions of dollars to restore deteriorating park and forest infrastructure.” It’s all about better bathrooms, folks.
  6. Lastly, it’s laughable that ODNR lists friends of parks/forests groups and communities who live near state parks/forests as “allied audiences” who would share the same goals as the administration. As I’ve noted in the past, the people who bear the greatest burden from natural resource extraction are those communities sitting on the front lines. Yet, despite the fact that fracking has damaged at least 360,000 acres of land nationally since 2005 (including more than 1,600 in Ohio), neither Governor Kasich’s bill nor HB 375 specifically sets aside a single dollar from severance taxes on the industry for affected communities. I’m just a tad bit skeptical that a group of lawmakers who ignore perhaps the single most important tenet of good natural resource governance is going to oversee fracking in a way that will cause no “disturbance” to our common, public heritage as Ohioans.
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  • Brian Kunkemoeller

    Great points. You seem to be one of the only people noting the distinct connection between Kasich’s reversal and the severance tax.

    • Tim

      Thanks, Brian. There would seem to be only two possible explanations for the Ohio GOP’s continued trumpeting of oil/gas industry talking points on industry regulation and its potential benefits:

      1.) They honestly believe that keeping severance taxes on the industry at or near the lowest in the country and turning a blind eye to regulation will actually create jobs and generate tax revenues. Of course, that would belie the myriad of evidence to the contrary. If severance tax rates were the determining factor on oil/gas industry investment, then one would assume the industry has completely abandoned Alaska, where severance tax rates are 25%. Shockingly, it hasn’t.

      2.) They are far more interested in serving the needs of the oil & gas industry, which has been one of their most significant political benefactors. Given that HB 375 flies in the face of all basic principles of proper natural resource governance and that Tony Stewart openly told the Dispatch his organization had written the methodology for HB 375, I’ll go with this one.