By Jamison Cocklin
and David Skolnick
The Ohio Organizing Collaborative on Wednesday welcomed Salem residents to hear from a panel of public advocates about the dangers associated with hydraulic fracturing, as the city mulls a proposal to restrict drilling to industrial zones.
Those who spoke before a sparse crowd of about 10 at the Salem Public Library talked of the need to counter the oil and gas industry’s message and discuss the “full story” that they said the industry often leaves out during similar educational events it sponsors.
Under a proposal making its way through the legislative process in Salem, a zoning ordinance would limit drilling to specified industrial zones within the city limits and ban it elsewhere.
The move is unusual, considering Salem is in a hotbed of oil and gas drilling in Columbiana County.
But city officials say they want to stay ahead of the curve and encourage drillers to stay away from urban areas.
Salem joins a handful of other cities and towns across the state, including Youngstown, that have banned, or are trying to ban some element of the oil and gas industry’s presence in their community.
The measures carry little weight, though, as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources possesses the sole authority to regulate and permit oil and gas drilling under state law.
Vanessa Pesec, president of the Network For Oil and Gas Accountability and Protection, told residents of the state’s control and added that “the industry writes legislation” for its business in the state. “No one should feel protected by the current legislation,” she said.
She encouraged the city to pursue passage of the current proposal and go one step further by banning drilling throughout the city.
Clyde Brown, a Second Ward councilman, said he didn’t believe it was fair to ban drilling in some parts of the city and not in others like the industrial zones, which are mostly in his ward.
He added that he’s not opposed to drilling as long as it doesn’t take place “in his city.”
Ted Auch, a program coordinator for FracTracker Alliance, which gathers and interprets data on the industry’s operations across the country, said Ohioans need more information on hydraulic fracturing before any more permits are issued or drilling moves closer to residential areas.
He also shared concerns about investment banks and their roles in financing oil and gas companies.
“Even if the drilling companies say they do, Wall Street does not care about your home or your community,” he said.
Divestitures, Auch said, could mean an industry-wide bust that would leave states such as Ohio to live with the economic and environmental damages for decades.
As Wednesday’s speakers set out to counter the industry’s message, some of its own representatives showed up to disprove the organizing collaborative’s panel.
“There was so much wrong with what they said, it baffled me,” said Shawn Bennett of the industry outreach group Energy InDepth.
“The oil and gas industry is not a pyramid scheme or a shell game. Strong investments mean investors are getting a strong return.”
Bennett added that the industry does not write oil and gas legislation, saying lawmakers do so with input from state agencies, the industry and environmental groups, among others.
“I would not do this job unless I knew it was a safe and well-regulated industry,” he said.
“I was born and raised in eastern Ohio, and I would never put my friends and family in danger.”
Meanwhile, 30 people attended a town-hall-style meeting Wednesday as part of a campaign organized by the group supporting a Youngstown charter amendment to ban fracking in the city.
The Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee has submitted petitions to place the anti-fracking amendment on the Nov. 5 election ballot.
The committee and its supporters discussed fracking, drilling and the impact on communities at the public meeting at The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Youngstown at 1105 Elm St.
“This industry cannot be safely regulated with the technology we have today,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a committee member and the Green Party candidate for city council president.
Kathleen Berry, a retired nurse, said the fracking industry is concerned with money and not public health.
But the group at the meeting is concerned with protecting the environment and people, she said.
“We have to look at this rationally,” Berry said.
“This group doesn’t have ulterior motives. There isn’t enough research to move full bore ahead” with fracking.
The group needs at least 1,562 valid signatures to get the measure back on the ballot. The committee submitted about 2,450 signatures that will be checked by the Mahoning County Board of Elections.
Voters rejected a similar proposal in May, 56.85 percent against to 43.15 percent in support.