‘Falsified’ public comments loom over Ohio state parks drilling decisions

The state’s public land leasing commission is still on track to approve drilling under parks and wildlife before year’s end, despite claims that more than 150 people’s identities were used without their authorization on pro-fracking public comments.

Fracking pumpjacks. These pieces of equipment are crucial to oil field and fracking operations. Getty Images.

An Ohio commission is poised to rule on proposals to drill under state parks and wildlife areas before the conclusion of an investigation into fabricated public comments submitted in favor of the proposals.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission deferred a decision Monday in order to allow more time to consider the lease conditions proposed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Chair Ryan Richardson said the commission still plans to make final decisions before the end of the year.

The process is playing out despite claims by more than 150 Ohio residents that their names and addresses were used without their knowledge or consent on pro-fracking public comments submitted to the commission. Critics say that alleged fraud, along with proposed below-market royalties, raise questions about whether the commission can fairly comply with statutory criteria for approving parcels for fossil fuel development.

“The falsified comments raise a lot of concerns about the already questionable efforts to drill in Ohio state parks,” said Ericka Copeland, state director for the Sierra Club of Ohio. “It’s reprehensible and it’s undemocratic.”

House Bill 507 jumpstarted the leasing process after lawmakers passed it last winter without any hearings on the law’s oil and gas provisions. A constitutional challenge remains pending in state court, but roughly a dozen leasing proposals have already been under review by the state land management commission. The commission approved four proposals for Department of Transportation properties on Monday. The rest under review are Department of Natural Resources properties.

A Cleveland.com and Plain Dealer investigation this month showed dozens of pro-fracking comments on the proposals were submitted without their purported authors’ knowledge or consent. By Sept. 15, approximately 150 comments of roughly 1,000 form-letter emails had been contested, an update shows.

In response, a Sept. 15 letter from 19 environmental and consumer groups urged the leasing commission and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to delay decisions or deny any proposals for drilling under Ohio public lands until after a thorough investigation to verify and correct the public record.

“That’s the concern — the timetable here,” Copeland said.

The advocacy groups’ Sept. 15 letter also asked the Ohio attorney general’s office for a full investigation and any necessary action to protect against deceptive use of Ohioans’ information to influence public processes.

“The attorney general takes these allegations seriously and has assigned investigative staff to look into the matter,” said deputy press secretary Dominic Binkley at Ohio Attorney General David Yost’s office. He declined to disclose information about the investigation’s expected timeline or whether the attorney general would support the denial or delay of approvals before it concludes.

“The commission is determined to follow the statute as it carries out the land leasing process as required by Ohio Revised Code. That includes administering an open public comments period that does not infringe on Ohio law or First Amendment rights,” said ODNR spokesperson Andy Chow. “Meanwhile, the commission is currently working on creating a public comments portal where people can directly submit their comments to the website with additional authentication tools.”

Following the statute

Copeland and other critics say the commission can’t properly consider public comments before more is known about how the falsified comments were generated.

“It’s common sense to delay any decision until the investigation is complete,” said Melinda Zemper, a volunteer with Save Ohio Parks, which opposes the drilling proposals. Failure to delay might also be a legal violation, she said.

Richardson, the commission’s chair, said they had known about some unauthorized comments since July and referred the issue to the attorney general’s office. However, she  added, she did not feel the comments dealt with specific criteria the statute said the commission must consider in reaching a decision.

Ohio law requires the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission to consider “any comments or objections … submitted by residents of this state or other users” of state land parcels nominated for the extraction of oil and gas. It’s unclear how commission members can fulfill that legal requirement if doubts remain about whether some comments are genuine or a sham.

The commission is also required to consider whether the permits would provide economic benefits. Commissioner Matthew Warnock noted that the 12.5% royalties called for by Ohio law are less than the market value, particularly for large parcels.

Low royalties could be grounds for a denial. Richardson speculated that additional financial terms could be incorporated in the bidding process, although the legal mechanisms for doing so remain unclear.

Multiple commenters referred to an Ohio State University report estimating that Ohio state parks generated roughly $8.1 billion for the state economy in 2017.

“Allowing fracking in state parks will only take away our [state’s] tourism and help fuel this recession our country is in,” wrote commenter Destiny Price.

Other factors the commission shall consider include compatibility with properties’ current uses, impacts to visitors, and environmental and geological impacts. Along those lines, many opponents noted that traffic, noise, bright lights, air pollution, health risks and other factors would interfere with their enjoyment of state parks and wildlife areas, as well as the environment.

“Everything about fracking is incompatible with the visitor experience,” said Cathy Cowan Becker of Save Ohio Parks. Compressor stations “sound like a jet engine taking off,” she added.

“Groundwater and drinking water of course are at risk of contamination,” Copeland said, noting that air pollution and soil contamination are also concerns. Multiple studies have shown adverse health effects to people living close to fracked oil and gas wells.

Fracturing shale to produce oil and gas also uses millions of gallons of water, Zemper said. Most of that water winds up being removed from the water cycle and disposed of in underground wells due to a high salt content and other contaminants, including radioactive chemicals.

Lakes at Wolf Run and Salt Fork parks also serve as drinking water sources, said Roxanne Groff of Save Ohio Parks. “All the streams that feed those lakes could easily be affected by brine spills. Or if a fracking operation was near enough to one of the streams, they could pollute it.” Climate change is also a “huge, huge issue,” she added.

Comments from ODNR Director Mary Mertz have asked the commission to impose additional lease terms as conditions. Yet comments filed by Jackie Stewart of Encino Energy objected to some of those terms, including a recommendation for no wells within 1,000 feet of park and wildlife area property lines. That distance is less than Ohio’s required property line setback for any turbine on a commercial wind farm.

Richardson pushed for adopting the ODNR conditions at the Sept. 18 meeting, although the discussion bogged down over Warnock’s suggestions for modifications and exceptions. Commission members also stressed that industry activity such as drill pads, pipelines and other operations would not be allowed on the surface of park and wildlife areas, even though wells would reach under public property.

Critics say the conditions wouldn’t eliminate adverse impacts. Additionally, ODNR has not collected any survey data from park visitors that might refute comments in the record from people who use the state parks, Groff said.

In any case, “there is no mandate to approve” any of the proposed parcels for drilling, said environmental scientist Randi Pokladnik in her comments filed with the commission.

Next steps

Richardson said after the meeting that the statute allows the commission to either approve or disapprove parcels for drilling. During the meeting, however, her comments suggested a presumption for approval unless there were affirmative reasons to say no. “We’ve been directed to open these lands up,” she said.

The next commission meeting likely will take place in October, although the date has not yet been determined.

For now, the Ohio Attorney General’s investigation will proceed. The Cleveland.com-Plain Dealer investigation identified the Consumer Energy Alliance as having collected and submitted roughly 1,000 form-letter emails in the record, including the bulk of the allegedly unauthorized comments. A smaller share apparently came through Ohio’s Energy Future Coalition, the investigation reported.

The statutory agent for Ohio’s Energy Future Coalition has not responded to the Energy News Network’s request for comment. David Holt, president of the Consumer Energy Alliance, has denied intentionally submitting any unauthorized comments.

The Consumer Energy Alliance “is fully cooperating with the investigation and provided all requested materials in CEA’s possession to the Attorney General’s Office,” said Bryson Hull, a vice president of the Consumer Energy Alliance.  Staff for the Consumer Energy Alliance largely overlaps with HBW Resources, whose website describes the company as a “government affairs, advocacy, and communications firm.” Hull, who is also a vice president at HBW, said it provides association management as a service for the alliance.

Nearly all of the Consumer Energy Alliance’s $2.9 million in revenue last year came from undisclosed contributions, gifts and grants, its Form 990 report to the Internal Revenue Service shows. Roughly $2.26 million went to HBW Resources.

An earlier report by the Energy and Policy Institute claimed the Consumer Energy Alliance has acted as “an advocacy front group for some of the country’s largest fossil fuel corporations and trade associations.” The report also identified earlier instances where the Consumer Energy Alliance was linked to unauthorized comments for matters affecting Ohio, Wisconsin and South Carolina. Prior investigations in those matters found no evidence they had resulted from intentional actions by the organization.

“The contractor CEA engaged to collect and submit the comments on its behalf was not involved in any of the three previous instances,” Hull said.

This story has been updated to include additional details about the Consumer Energy Alliance and HBW Resources.

This article first appeared on Energy News Network and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.



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Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network
Kathiann M. Kowalski, Energy News Network

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.