An environmental group has discovered a controversial playbook that a state department drew up to tackle oil and gas drilling issues. The plan calls into question the relationship between a state agency and the industry it’s supposed to regulate. Now, two state lawmakers are asking for legislative hearings to further investigate hearings.
At issue is a communications plan crafted by The Department of Natural Resources to educate Ohioans about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in state parks. That plan categorized groups in the state as allies and adversaries; and warned that the department’s efforts would be met with “zealous resistance by environmental activists.”
'Nixonian' Hit List
In addition to lawmakers, the adversary list included environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council.
“It—in a very ‘Nixonian’ way—shows that the Kasich Administration through the department of Natural Resources had an enemies list over drilling in public parks and a public relations program that they put together in an effort to discredit or neutralize those groups that they thought would be opposed to drilling in public parks,” says Brian Rothenberg, from the liberal think tank Progress Ohio. He says the plan lays out a public relations hit list.
The Sierra Club uncovered the memo while sifting through a batch of records it requested from the department. Brian Kunkemoeller with the Sierra Club says this plan demonstrates a fundamental conflict with the relationship between ODNR and the oil and gas industry. “This is a very sad day for our democracy where the industry that’s supposed to be regulating fracking and protecting our public lands is working in alliance with the industry itself. The document admits—and we agree—that this blurs the perception of ODNR’s ability to regulate oil and gas.”
Attacks From 'Extremist Groups'
Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Governor Kasich, said in response that he couldn’t comment on who saw what pieces of paper a year and a half ago. "Of course the administration is going to coordinate and plan ahead on an important issue like gas production on state land. If we didn’t, these same extremist groups would be attacking us for not planning ahead.”
ODNR is also defending the decision to draw up a communications plan.
“The fact that these secretly funded extremists groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it,” says department spokesperson Bethany McCorkle. ODNR also says it never implemented the plan.
Advocates for the state's oil and gas industry says ODNR is doing its job. Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association talked about the plan while on WCPN's "The Sound of Ideas" in Cleveland.
“Apparently what has happened is that they were looking over the lands that they were charged to oversee and were developing a plan that the General Assembly gave them authorization to do which is to lease state-owned property which is a process that goes on in nearly every other state where the state owns state property,” says Stewart.
Environmental groups say in light of surfaced emails and other documents, there are doubts on ODNR's claim the plan was never implemented.
“So the question is—what did they do on this issue? And have they had similar meetings on other issues where they’ve tried to neutralize Ohioans to protect businesses," says Rothenberg of Progress Ohio. "There are even more questions than that such as—what did the governor know and when did he know it.”
Kunkemoeller from the Sierra Club adds that his group can draw direct correlations from strategies in the plan. “I’ve been getting a lot of email response from groups all across the state who are citing specific examples of a way this has happened.”
Lawmakers Democratic Representatives Bob Hagan of Youngstown and Nickie Antonio of Lakewood were mentioned as “opponents” in the communications plan who are calling for an investigation.
Antonio believes the strategy marginalizes her efforts and the efforts of others to limit fracking.
“I believe that’s the best policy for the health and safety of the people of Ohio. And so to call my intentions or my work anything less than that is certainly insulting,” says Antonio.