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On a cloudy day in July hundreds of people gathered in downtown Warren.
Dividing them was a road. On one side was a large group of outspoken people who had traveled from nearby places in the Mahoning Valley and others from across Ohio. They came to protest the oil and gas industry and its growing presence throughout eastern Ohio in a show of numbers determined to reveal the truth behind what they believe are the clandestine operations that it engages in.
On the other side were those who came to show their support for the commerce, jobs and hope that the industry has brought with it to Ohio. They wanted to send a message that the oil and gas industry is welcome here and there are those who can no longer stay quiet while its merit is questioned.
July’s event was one of the largest of its kind yet seen in Northeast Ohio.
Moreover, it was the culmination of a divide that has been growing for nearly three years in Ohio. The people who brought their beliefs to Warren that day laid the gap bare, and the actions of supporters who set off air horns so that the protesters on stage could not be heard and the signs those protesters carried to shame the industry only highlighted how at times that gap seems to be growing.
It was the kind of civil discourse that underscores a larger debate evolving nationally about climate change, domestic energy and the political direction the country is moving.
In Ohio, no matter who is speaking, there is no denying that the debate about horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is real. The problematic question, then, is how can the gap in opinion be breached and what happens when the voices on both sides seem to be growing more isolated.
“Conversation and discussion is always a good thing; not much bad can come from two sides talking,” said Jedd Thorp, a conservation program manager at the Ohio Sierra Club. “But at the end of the day, I don’t know how much we could really accomplish. One area I think both sides could work on in the near term, though, is making sure the industry is doing everything it can to protect the environment and public health.”
Founded in 1892, the Sierra Club is one of the nation’s largest and most influential environmental organizations with chapters throughout the U.S. and Canada. In comparison with other active grass-roots groups that oppose the oil and gas industry in the state, the Ohio Sierra club has taken a low-profile approach, choosing to support and lend a hand to the cause of local groups.
Thorp’s comment about holding the industry accountable strikes at the heart of what public-interest groups are trying to accomplish in their mission against the fossil-fuel industry, and, for now, it seems it’s all they can really hope for.
“We recognize that natural-gas development is happening right now; there’s natural-gas power plants, and there’s not going to be a statewide ban that eliminates it all tomorrow,” Thorp said. “We look at the long-term energy picture of 20 to 50 years from now and where we want it to be and where this country needs it to be.”
In a sense, then, if those who represent the industry are charged with sticking to their talking points, activists, environmentalists and public-interest groups are there to derail those points and get them to address thornier issues, such as ground- water contamination, methane emissions and the complaints of communities who feel their concerns are not being heard.
Those sorts of efforts have only grown since 2010 when larger oil and gas companies began establishing a presence in Ohio.
Shortly after a magnitude 4.0 earthquake rattled Youngstown on New Year’s Eve in 2011, FrackFree Mahoning Valley was born. The group has been trying since earlier this year to ban drilling in Youngstown. It collected 1,562 signatures in February and saw a referendum initiative defeated at the ballot in May, 57 percent to 43 percent. FrackFree has vowed to continue its fight to ban drilling in the city.
FrackFree is not alone in its efforts. Athens, Mansfield, Bowling Green, Kent and Brunswick have either passed or considered similar measures.
More rallies, such as the one in Warren, are planned, and the same group that organized that event, Don’t Frack Ohio, had its first international rally at the Nelson Ledges campground in Garretsville at the end of August.
For industry representatives, most of the concerns about oil and gas drilling in Ohio have been stretched beyond the truth. As the opposition has stepped up its campaign, so too has the industry itself.
“I don’t think a lot of it is organically homegrown opposition. Outside groups with a national strategy come in to talk about this issue,” said Chris Zeigler, executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council. “I mean, they’re debating whether to prohibit fracking in localities where there wouldn’t be any because of the geology. A lot of these arguments do not appear to be based on science as much as they do on a political strategy.”
Zeigler said it is increasingly frustrating when the industry “has to continually address issues that have been discounted.” He said it’s an “ongoing responsibility to continue to educate the public.”
Zeigler believes the industry’s benefits are undeniable. He often quotes studies that disprove contamination or pollution, and he insists, like others in his field, that the oil and gas industry is creating thousands of jobs in Ohio.
Still, environmental groups do the same. Every time the industry raises and cites a study, the other side has a different one waiting in the wings. Caught in the middle is the public who are left to decide for themselves what is true.
“I think the divide is getting smaller; the vast majority of Ohioans are seeing through this misinformation that the anti-development folks are spreading,” said Shawn Bennett, a campaign manager for Energy InDepth, an industry outreach group launched in 2009 and financed by the Independent Petroleum Association of America that researches issues and builds grass-roots support for the shale-energy industry.
“Most of the claims aren’t true, and the public is learning that more and more.”
But Bennett, who works for an organization that groups such as FrackFree chastise for its industry ties, says it’s “never a challenge to debunk material with credible, peer-reviewed sources” and studies that come from governmental agencies and prominent universities across the country.
Zeigler added that there is no definitive proof that fracking contaminates drinking water or pollutes the air.
Zeigler and Bennett, along with their counterparts in the state, recently have started to push the results of two studies released this year.
The first comes from a mid-April report about greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency revised its estimates and said that the tighter pollution controls it imposed on the oil and gas industry resulted in a 20 percent reduction of methane emissions from previous estimates.
The second comes from a yearlong study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. In July, researchers at its National Energy Technology Laboratory released preliminary results from a fracking site they have monitored in western Pennsylvania. The results demonstrated that hydraulic fracturing has no effect on ground water.
Science, however, is one thing neither side can agree upon.
“Why should we be guinea pigs for the industry while they work on developing technology so this can be done safely?” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of FrackFree Mahoning Valley. “It can’t be done safely with the technology that exists. There’s loopholes, deals and pre-emptive laws and regulations that favor the industry.”
In an article published this spring in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Beiersdorfer was labeled an “unlikely dissident.” Her grandfather founded an oil-tool company in California in the 1920s, which her brother currently owns. She recalls “bouncing down roads” in the back of her father’s truck on the way to make deliveries to oil rigs during her childhood.
She also worked as a mudlogger in the oil fields of California, and for the past seven years she has taught geology at Youngstown State University. Because she has become an outspoken critic of the industry, Beiersdorfer believes it cost her the job at YSU. She is not teaching there this semester.
Beiersdorfer searches for her own proof that the industry must be held accountable, and she shows how activists bring their own firepower to the table.
They often remind the public of the cases and property buyouts from Pennsylvania and Arkansas, to Texas and Wyoming where oil and gas companies have signed sealed settlements for hundreds of thousands of dollars with families who reported sickness and problems with their drinking water where fracking occurred.
They also compel the public to think about the laws and regulations that govern the industry and how they’re written into law and who’s involved.
In a sign of how far the debate has come, it was announced in March that a group of environmentalists, public foundations and major oil and gas companies would come together to strengthen standards for the oil and gas industry by creating a strict criteria it must follow to protect Appalachia from air and water pollution.
Based in Pittsburgh, The Center for Sustainable Shale Development is a mixture of groups including Chevron, Consol Energy, the Heinz Endowments and the Environmental Defense Fund.
For now, its roster is short. Major players such as the National Resources Defense Council and Chesapeake Energy haven’t signed up.
At the time it was announced, certain companies declined to join, and some environmental groups said it would be a failure.
“I think about this as reasonable discourse. It gets to the point with these polarities that both sides have been unable to breach,” said interim director Andrew Place, of the center’s work. “This isn’t about tearing down differences of opinion, but about building up the interests of this debate. It is not a tit-for-tat organization, but one dedicated to building up a middle ground that is transparent and quantifiable.”
The standards that oil and gas companies must abide by as part of their membership with the CSSD were finalized in March. Place, who also works for EQT Corp., an oil and gas company, said that as those firms go through their first round of certification, expected to be complete in Spring 2014, more companies and environmental organizations likely will join.
“Proving how rigorous the audit process is was a critical piece of the center’s early work,” Place said. “It would be disingenuous to step out ahead of that process, because it’s one thing to have standards and another to say how you will ensure compliance of those standards.”
Even if the CSSD can mend a few of the differences between both sides of the fracking debate and bring them closer together on some issues, many believe it likely will persist.
The industry believes that activists and public-interest groups opposed to what it does are unwilling to hear the truth no matter how verifiable, while the other side feels as though it is up against a machine backed by billions of dollars and political influence.
“I don’t know if the industry is open to input or talking about these issues because they constantly say they’re doing everything perfectly,” Thorp, of the Ohio Sierra Club, said.