By Tom McParland
It hasn’t been a great month for the reputation of fracking.
First, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources on April 11 announced a “probable” connection between the drilling practice and a slew of earthquakes that shook Poland Township in early March.
Then, less than a week later, a report emerged that measured emissions of the greenhouse gas methane at Pennsylvania drilling sights at levels up to 1,000 times higher than federal regulators initially estimated.
Both issues made national and international headlines, and a group of fracking opponents hope that momentum will help to push a citizen initiative to ban fracking in the city limits to victory on its third try.
“The fact that those stories are getting into the mainstream media, that is making the difference,” said Susie Beiersdorfer, a member of the Community Bill of Rights Committee, the lead group supporting the ban.
She said the group has redoubled its efforts after similar efforts failed by significant margins last year. Between Jan. 1 and April 16, the anti-fracking committee raised $6,328 and spent $4,479 on political signs and meetings to draw awareness to their cause.
On Wednesday, Beiersdorfer and the organization Frackfree Mahoning Valley organized a press conference outside of City Hall to protest the dangers of fracking and ODNR’s handling of its investigation into the Poland quakes.
But Youngstown residents are no strangers to the controversy surrounding fracking.
In 2012, they learned that a Youngstown injection well caused as many as 109 low-magnitude earthquakes. The following February, the illegal dumping of fracking wastewater prompted a weeks-long cleanup of the Mahoning River and one of its tributaries.
After both events, nearly identical charter amendments failed at the May and November ballots.
Charter-issue foes have focused debate on jobs, arguing that a fracking ban would drive away companies that would have come in the city to support the oil and gas industry.
“It’s a measure that would hurt the economy and the opportunity we have to jobs and investment,” said Tony Paglia, spokesman for the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
The chamber spearheaded the effort to organize the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment to combat the initiative. The coalition of businesses, labor, legal representatives and political leaders has developed a program of education and outreach to defeat the issue.
It has the financial backing of the Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396, which has spent $40,949 in an effort to defeat the measure next month.
“It’s a small price to pay for growth,” said Butch Taylor, the union’s business manager. “It’s our livelihood. It’s our growth.”
Beyond the debate, there are questions about whether Community Bill of Rights would even be enforceable if it became law.
State law establishes ODNR as the sole regulator of the oil and gas industry in Ohio, meaning that the agency would likely pre-empt any authority the amendment would give to the city, said Alan Wenger, a coalition member and oil and gas attorney with Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell Ltd.
Further, it is too broadly written and opens landowners and companies up to “unfathomable” litigation, he said.
“It’s a law that just never, ever should be imposed,” Wenger said, adding that it would likely not hold up to a challenge in the courts.
Wenger said he respects and shares the concerns of the anti-fracking committee members, but he discounts their measure as neither a realistic nor appropriate way of dealing with legitimate concerns.
“I think there should be more regulation, but this is not a regulatory measure.”
Beiersdorfer, confident the measure will pass, would not say if there would be a fourth attempt should it fail again. She said the group will continue to push a dialogue about fracking. “That’s really what’s missing in this whole thing, is the ability to have public dialogue and conversation,” she said.