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Democracy Denied: Oil and Gas Land Management Commission

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On Monday, September 18th, about 75 Ohio citizens traveled from all over the state to attend the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission meeting. The meeting was to decide if thousands of acres of public land in Ohio including Salt Fork State Park, Wolf Run State Park, Zepernick Wildlife Area, and Valley Run Wildlife Area, would be open to bidding for oil and gas companies seeking to frack their acreages.

Legislation (HB 133) (passed in 2011 under then Governor Kasich) opened up state lands to fracking. However, public outcry against the bill was so intense that Governor Kasich “instituted a de facto moratorium on drilling in these areas by refusing to appoint members to a leasing commission mandated in the bill.” Fast forward to December 2022, when Ohio’s majority Republican legislature fast-tracked HB 507, dubbed the “stuffed chicken bill”, through the lame duck session. In addition to opening state lands to oil and gas development, this bill also declared methane gas to be “green energy.” In a totally undemocratic process, the bill was quickly signed into law without any public comment period.

As mandated by the Ohio Revised Code 155.31, Governor DeWine appointed a 5-person oil and gas land management commission. They include: two members with knowledge or experience in the oil and gas industry, and recommended by a statewide organization representing the oil and gas industry; tne member of the public with expertise in finance or real estate; one member representing a statewide environmental or conservation organization. The commission consists of: Ryan Richardson (attorney), Jim McGregor, Matthew Warnock (an energy attorney), Stephen Buehrer (attorney) and Michael Wise (also an attorney, who was not present at the last 2 meetings).

Not one member has a background in environmental science, technology, engineering, or the medical field. Yet they are charged with making decisions on whether or not to frack our state parks. At the latest meeting, the commission was met by a very emotional crowd. People held up signs that read “deny” and “fake emails.” Several times members of the crowd yelled out things like “these are our parks” and “don’t frack our water.” The Commission chair, Ryan Richardson, warned the crowd that she would clear the room if the comments were not stopped. At one point Stephen Buehrer, a commission member who represents real estate interests on the commission, responded, “We’re trying to conduct the state’s business here.”

It is ironic that these meetings claim to be open to the public. The public is not allowed to comment or ask questions of the commission at any time. Even though citizens are paying for state parks through their taxes, their voices have been silenced throughout this entire process. I have attended four of the OGLMC meetings this year and I can only describe the commission as ineffective and biased. Some of the anger expressed by citizens in attendance was in part due to the way the commission and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has chosen to ignore falsified email comments that were fraudulently submitted, suggesting that the named person was in favor of fracking the parks. “Dozens of citizens told Jake Zuckerman that their names and addresses were used without their knowledge on public comments supporting drilling for oil and gas in Ohio’s state parks.”

Grassroots groups warned ODNR Director Mary Mertz that they had discovered fraudulent emails. Despite evidence of this illegal activity, Mertz chose to do nothing to correct the record. Mertz “defended the decision to neither independently investigate nor remove from the official record, disputed, pro-fracking public comments.” The Attorney General has launched an investigation into the falsified documents.

Thousands of Ohioans took time to submit real comments urging the commission to SAVE OHIO PARKS. Many of these comments referenced peer-reviewed studies on the effects of fracking on both humans and ecosystems. By contrast, other than two sets of form letters, there were fewer than twelve comments in support of fracking our public lands.

Nine criteria were to be used when considering fracking in Ohio parks (Ohio Revised Code 155.33). It was quite obvious, however, that economics was far more important to the commission than any environmental damage or effects to the local tourism industry or visitors. The commission spent a great deal of time debating the current amount of royalties being paid by oil and gas companies for state lands. Matthew Warnock said the state legislature, which set royalties at 12.5 percent, set the value too low.

The four members present were split over whether restrictions on fracking under parks sought by the Department of Natural Resources should be considered. These restrictions include: no well pads within 1,000 feet of the park boundary, a ban on use of park roads by oil and gas vehicles, rules about water and light pollution, as well as a temporary shutdown of some areas during hunting season. Because the commission could not agree on the ODNR restrictions, the matter was tabled until the next meeting.

The chair, Ryan Richardson, repeatedly claimed “I think the statute is very clear about what the scope of our authority is and is not, I don’t think we have the ability to simply say no." But her statement is not accurate.

Why were nine specific criteria set for the commission to review if they did not have any recourse other than to say yes to all of the nominations? The relevant statute, ORC 155.33, says the commission can “approve or disapprove” lease nominations on the basis of the nine considerations, including economic benefit, environmental impact, geological impact, impact on visitors, and public comments and objections.

The Oil and Gas Land Management Commission is a prime example of “regulatory capture,” a form of corruption of authority that occurs when a political entity, policymaker, or regulator is co-opted to serve the commercial, ideological, or political interests of a minor constituency, such as an industry. The commission is stacked in favor of the oil and gas industry, and the meetings are merely a puppet show with the strings being pulled by oil and gas interests.

Citizens, hoping for an authentic process, diligently try to educate the commission on the many reasons why our Ohio Parks should not be fracked. Yet, the commission, statehouse, and Governor DeWine have made it impossible for Ohio’s citizens to participate in a democratic process.


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