By Julie Carr Smyth
Top advisers to Republican Gov. John Kasich knew the Ohio Department of Natural Resources planned to discredit environmental groups and two lawmakers while promoting drilling in state parks and forests in 2012, new records show.
Top administration officials met with department leaders about the plan, the governor’s spokesman said last month. Invitees to that meeting included Kasich’s chief policy adviser, chief of staff, legislative liaison and then-environmental czar Craig Butler, whom Kasich recently appointed to lead the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.
Spokesman Rob Nichols downplayed his earlier claims that the administration had no knowledge of the plan.
“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,” he said in an email.
The department said the plan was only discussed and never implemented.
A memo outlining the communications strategy was released Feb. 15. It labeled the so-called eco-left, including the Sierra Club, Ohio Environmental Council and others as adversaries. Halliburton and other energy companies the department is charged with regulating were named as allies, as were national, local and state chambers of commerce.
The proposal, created by a senior department official assigned to special projects, suggested enlisting allied groups to counteract “zealous resistance by environmental activist opponents, who are skilled propagandists.”
A final draft was dated Aug. 20, 2012, the same day a state email indicates that Kasich’s top policy adviser, Wayne Struble, had scheduled a meeting on the matter. Asked whether the meeting took place, Nichols said, “I think so, yes.”
ProgressOhio, a liberal group that joined in the Sierra Club’s release of the documents, called it a “Nixonian” government-enemies list.
Among those targeted were Democratic state Reps. Robert Hagan and Nickie Antonio, who called for Ohio House hearings on the matter. The pair called the strategy memo improper and unprecedented.
“The governor is quick to jump in bed with Halliburton and the oil and gas companies, with no apparent regard for the legitimate concerns of Ohio citizens,” said Hagan, of Youngstown. “This document raises a lot of questions regarding taxpayer resources being used to play politics, and taxpayers deserve answers.”
Nichols questioned their outrage.
“Representative Hagan and the Sierra Club — one of the largest, secretly funded groups on the planet — have a pact to try and kill the fracking jobs that are helping get Mr. Hagan’s own communities back on track,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to reason with folks bent on that kind of self-destruction.”
The memo theorized that Ohio families would be vulnerable “to messaging by opponents that the initiative represents dangerous and radical state policy by Gov. Kasich.” It anticipated that environmentalists would attempt to slant news coverage, incite public panic over health risks and physically halt drilling.
At the same time, the memo noted that partnering with drilling interests “could blur public perception of ODNR’s regulatory role in oil and gas.”
The department has not said who ordered the proposal to be drafted, how much it cost, or whether any outside organization was involved.
Natural Resources spokesman Mark Bruce said the plan was more than a year old and he was not aware of how it came about.
The plan singles out Halliburton among energy companies to be considered allies.
State records show Halliburton’s lobbyist in Ohio is Dwayne Siekman, a vice president at The Strategy Group Company, whose Delaware, Ohio, address he lists on his registration. The firm’s sister company, Strategy Group for Media, handles Kasich’s political communications. A representative said the firm had no role in crafting the state plan.
Ohio opened state parks and other public lands to drilling in 2011 but has not acted on the new law.
Nichols said the law called for a state oil and gas commission to be created to authorize drilling activity, but Kasich has opted not to appoint the panel yet because the governor doesn’t believe the regulatory structure around the practice is mature enough.