By Marc Kovac
Newly released documents outline plans to market several state parks for oil and gas drilling by the same state agency that regulates such activities in eastern Ohio’s emerging shale oil fields.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ “draft outline for communication plan” and other records obtained by a liberal advocacy and environmentalist groups also show a senior adviser to Gov. John Kasich knew of the strategy, which included gaining support from industry and business groups to counter environmental concerns.
“What is outrageous is that the document both recognizes the regulatory role of ODNR and then goes on to list the very organizations it regulates as allies in their propaganda campaign to drill in state parks,” Brian Rothenberg, executive director of ProgressOhio, said in a released statement.
An ODNR spokeswoman, however, defended the draft plan, which she said “was never implemented, just used for discussion.”
“Any responsible organization plans in advance what it is going to do, especially when it knows it is going to face fierce opposition to progress,” Bethany McCorkle, a spokeswoman for the agency, said in a released statement. “The fact that these secretly funded extremist groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it.”
Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the governor, added in a released statement, “I don’t know what specific pieces of paper different people saw a year and a half ago, but of course the administration is going to coordinate and plan ahead on an important issue like gas production on state land. If we didn’t, these same extremist groups would be attacking us for not planning ahead.”
The ODNR documents note plans to “exercise state-owned drilling rights” at Sunfish Creek State Forest in Monroe County, Wolf Run State Park in Noble County and Barkcamp State Park in Belmont County “in a way that maximizes benefits and safeguards for Ohioans, completely avoids park surface disturbance and minimizes forest surface disturbance.”
A section of the plan titled “Communication Problem to Solve” states that “an initiative to proactively open state park and forest land to horizontal drilling/hydraulic fracturing will be met with zealous resistance by environmental activist opponents, who are skilled propagandists.”
The latter includes the Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council, state Rep. Bob Hagan, D-Youngstown, the Natural Resources Defense Council and others, who, the plan notes, “will attempt to legally and physically halt the drilling,” “attempt to create a public panic about perceived health risks” and “slant news coverage against us.”
ODNR would focus its communications on countering such efforts by spotlighting the “millions of new dollars to restore deteriorating park and forest infrastructure ... repair deteriorating dams controlled by ODNR” and “thousands of new jobs for Ohioans,” among other “Key Messages” detailed in the marketing strategy.
Potential “stakeholders” and “allied groups” for delivering ODNR’s message about fracking on state-owned land included chambers of commerce and energy company Halliburton.
The documents drew quick criticism from environmental groups.
“Our state government should not be frittering valuable time and taxpayer money on a PR campaign designed to ‘neutralize’ legitimate concerns about impacts to public lands and public health and safety from fracking in our state parks and forests,” Nathan Johnson, staff attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council, said in a released statement. “The ODNR should be an impartial watchdog, not an industry cheerleader. It’s shocking to learn that ODNR laid plans to actively enlist the help of extractive industries to ‘marginalize’ respected voices for the preservation of our natural heritage.”