Biggest Concerns Still Unanswered in Gov. Kasich’s Collusion With Fracking Industry
By Brian Kunkemoeller
Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich reversed his position on fracking public lands in response to public outcry about the events surrounding recently released information about the state’s collusion with the oil and gas industry to conduct a shady pro-fracking PR campaign. Last week, Gov. Kasich announced that he is opposed to drilling in state parks, but the biggest concerns are still unanswered as a cloud of controversy still lingers.
In 2011, we watched as a state legislature seemingly smitten by the industry passed legislation opening public lands to fracking with handshakes and applause, despite polls showing that 70 percent of Ohioans were opposed. Ohio Sierra Club members and others had risen to the occasion by writing letters and giving testimony, but the Governor signed the bill into law, which at that time seemed to seal the fate for Ohio’s public lands.
In 2012, the Ohio Sierra Club filed the first of many open records requests to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) looking for e-mails between the agency and the industry and how the language of the public lands fracking bill was written. The agency didn’t respond, forcing our first lawsuit (and not our last) simply to obtain public records from the ODNR. One of the things we discovered in those e-mails was that the Ohio Oil and Gas Association had been one of a select few invited to make edits to the legislation as the bill was making its way into state law.
Late last year, amid silence from the administration on the status of opening public lands to horizontal fracking, Ohio Sierra Club filed another public request under Ohio records law. It was this request that yielded the now-famous collusion document as well as the e-mail invite from the Governor’s office that named several targets, including Robert F. Hagan (D-Youngstown), in what the state representative has since coined “frackgate.”
Stories about this will be written and re-written, as the depth of this story is only beginning to be seen. How far down the rabbit-hole the state administration has gone will always be a topic of speculation. Unless, of course, there is an investigation.
Ohio's PR Agenda
There is no question that ODNR is actively silencing and opposing Ohioans concerned about fracking. This is the same agency who recently ignored repeated requests by the citizens of Athens and county commissioners alike who were simply asking for a public hearing about proposed fracking waste disposal wells. The ODNR met citizens in Portage County with armed guards and dogs, giving a brief lecture about the history of oil and gas in Ohio and refusing to answer questions about the wells in question.
Most disturbing, citizens in Darke County (hometown of Director James Zehringer) held expert panel events about fracking, only to have handouts made by ODNR staff discrediting their information delivered to and distributed by the County Commissioners office. Ohio Rep. Jim Buchy (R-Greenville) even made a website that features videos of the ODNR staff discrediting the citizens' concerns alongside Energy In Depth—the industry's new pet PR firm.
How are public funds being used for these purposes? How much state officials' staff time is being used to do PR, and by whom? What is the agency's relationship with Halliburton, America's Natural Gas Association and JobsOhio? When did the ODNR start working with Energy In Depth and what is their relationship?
Where does our state regulatory agency end, and the fracking industry they regulate begin?
State Reps. Hagan and Nickie J. Antonio (D-Lakewood) submitted a letter to Ohio House Speaker William Batchelder requesting legislative hearings and an investigation in to the ODNR's agenda. If House Speaker Batchelder denies these requests, Ohioans will be forced to draw their own conclusions about whether or not the oil and gas industry has infiltrated the public process.
In fact, if there is no investigation, the public has every right to draw some very serious conclusions.
The governor made stunning comments when he announced his reversal. First, that he didn’t believe that the “regulatory framework was mature enough” for fracking in parks. Second, this is why he never appointed the five-member Oil and Gas Leasing Commission before the deadline to approve public lands leases. (About that public lands leasing commission—the nominations were made by the Ohio Oil and Gas Association themselves during an e-mail exchange with the ODNR)
These are two very interesting statements.
One: if the regulatory framework is in fact not mature enough, then he apparently perceives that fracking isn't safe enough for our public lands. The obvious question is: if it’s not safe enough for our public lands, is it safe enough for our communities? Does the governor agree that the ODNR seems incapable of regulating fracking and knows all too well about their sweetheart relationship with industry? Here's the take from Sierra Club President David Scott:
“It seems Governor Kasich is coming to his senses after being caught up in the ongoing ‘FrackGate’ scandal. The governor now admits that the ‘regulatory structure’ is not ‘mature’ enough to allow fracking in Ohio’s parks. We agree. But the Sierra Club and our 2.4 million members and supporters understand that what is too dangerous for our parks is too dangerous for other public lands or our backyards. And everyone will agree that public officials shouldn’t be colluding with the oil and gas industry to force fracking down our throats.”
Two: is this actually about the severance tax? A Columbus Dispatch article earlier this week quotes Tom Stewart vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, “We would never compromise our position on the severance tax to get concessions on state land.” So, what Stewart is saying is that he’s not going to sue the governor for not making the appointments he wanted for the Ohio Oil and Gas leasing commission because he would rather pass a tax bill that Ohio Oil and Gas Association admittedly wrote.
This is the real crux of the governor's position. It explains why he's holding off on making appointments to the leasing commission. It also explains why he left himself an out when he said he "holds the right to revisit" his opposition to fracking public lands. He's using Ohio's public lands as a bargaining chip.
Yes, it's indeed a dubious business to dance with the fracking industry. Disclaimer: severance taxes on extractive industries aren't necessarily a good thing.
So, what's all of this severance tax business about anyway? Well, it's actually really important and it's become a very serious problem for the governor, though no one seems to be talking about how FrackGate and the severance tax are very much connected (except for Tim Kovach).
While already fighting an uphill battle to show job growth from fracking is anywhere near par with projections—Kasich is being outright stifled in his efforts to draw even a modest tax on the industry and follow through on his promises for Ohioans to actually benefit from fracking. Disaster struck for Kasich when Speaker of the House William Batchelder soundly defeated the Governor's severance tax proposal that would have lowered income taxes for Ohioans and at least partially resolved significant questions about Ohio's budget. All of that despite the fact that the Governor's bill would have kept Ohio's fracking tax among the lowest in the nation.
Batchelder immediately came back with Ohio Oil and Gas Association's own trojan horse severance tax, that marginally increased the tax from 2 percent to 2.25 percent, but grants other tax subsidies which the Ohio Legislative Service Commission shows would amount to an $8.5 million dollar loss for the General Revenue Fund, including a $1.1 million dollar loss to the School District Property Tax Replacement Fund. If passed, Ohioans would lose out on any actual benefit from fracking, period. Kasich is being just plain out-dueled by his radical counterparts in the statehouse and their friends at the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.
Oddly, the governor might be in a ripe position to fight back. A moratorium on drilling and a full investigation of ODNR's relationship with industry would certainly get their attention.
One thing is for certain—FrackGate has Ohio on notice, and the people are watching.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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