Prove your humanity

Activists who want to prevent fracking in Ohio’s state parks are trying to rally more people to their cause. They’re fighting against a new law that requires the state to consider proposals to drill for oil and natural gas under Ohio’s public lands.

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Jenny Morgan signs with a guitar in a pavilion.

Singer, songwriter and public health activist Jenny Morgan provided the entertainment for the July 1, 2023 rally at Salt Fork State Park. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

“Make no mistake, the decision has been made without the consent of the public to whom these lands belong and against the desperate warnings of scientists that our continued exploitation of fossil fuels will send the human race to its grave,” said Aaron Dunbar, of Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action. He was speaking to a gathering of about 65 people at a pavilion near the beach at Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County, southeast Ohio, in early July.

In January, Governor DeWine signed a bill requiring the state to consider proposals to drill under state-owned property, like parks and wildlife areas. Agencies have had the authority to approve drilling projects since a 2011 law allowed for it, but that law stated that agencies “may” lease state lands for oil and natural gas production. The new law now says they “shall” lease it.

Since then, the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission has created a process to accept drilling applications on state land. Twelve have been submitted so far, though the names of the companies are being kept confidential by the commission.

Some proposals are along highways, in wildlife areas, and at Wolf Run State Park. Three are at Salt Fork State Park.

Salt Fork has hiking trails, marinas, a resort lodge and an 18-hole golf course.

“[These are]…state taxpayers’ lands that we own, we pay for, and we use,” said long-time environmental activist Roxanne Groff.

More than 14,000 acres of the 17,000-acre park have been proposed for fracking, a process that includes drilling horizontal wells for miles underground.

A sign that reads "No! No! Frack Save Our Salt Fork Parks!

A sign hung at the rally at Salt Fork State Park. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

A new group, Save Ohio Parks, organized this rally against the plan. People hung signs in the pavilion that read “Ohio: Fracking the Heart of It All,” and “No fracking on public lands.”

“Every inch of this park will have a lateral under it, sucking out the oil and gas,” Groff said.

Map of Salt Fork well pads

A map of Salt Fork State Park shows where some of the proposed well pads would be located. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Read the proposals for drilling under Salt Fork SP

When Governor DeWine signed the law, he said his policy that prohibits drillers from accessing the surface of the parks would continue.

Sixteen well pads have been proposed for Salt Fork. They would not be inside the park, but just outside its boundaries on land that would be leased from private property owners.

Groff described how well pads are constructed, pointing to a lush green area.

“They would take out all those trees for anywhere from 6 to 20 acres, flatten it, put a cement pad on it, put a drill that’s hundreds of feet tall into the sky, and drill thousands of feet into the earth,” she said.  “You no longer have trees, you no longer have grass, you no longer have clean air, no longer have clean water.”

Cathy Cowan-Becker, co-founder of Save Ohio Parks, worries that drillers will destroy the ecosystem, the natural beauty, and industrialize the park.

“They want to surround Salt Fork with well pads,” she said. “I do not see how [with] 16 well pads around this park, fracking all that, [the park] is going to survive.”

Making the decision to frack Salt Fork

As fired up as the activists were, some still don’t think there’s much chance the five-member commission, which includes two members from the oil and gas industry, will turn down the proposals.

Commission member Jim McGregor disagrees.

“We’re not a rubber stamp,” he said. “We can turn down these applications.”

McGregor, a former administrator at ODNR, who used to lead an environmental group, was appointed to represent conservation organizations on the commission.

The commission will not regulate the well pads, that’s done by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, but it will decide on the proposals to drill those lateral wells that will collect gas from underneath the park.

Sponsors of the bill said it was written in response to requests by the energy industry because companies were frustrated by the lack of movement on their drilling requests.

In an email, Ohio Oil and Gas Association President Rob Brundrett said before this law there was no uniform process for working with state agencies on leases.

“The language contained in House Bill 507 was to ensure that the state would have a standardized process for any leasing of state land in the future,” he said.

Brundrett claimed that federal, county and local governments have leased land for oil and gas development with “no adverse effects to their ecosystems or overall enjoyment.”

The commission has heard from a variety of groups at its meetings this year. Pro-fracking groups have spoken about their positive experiences and the financial benefits. Anti-fracking groups have explained that millions of gallons of water are used in each fracked well, and that can impact water sources and also creates millions of gallons of chemical-laced, radioactive wastewater.

Emergency responders have also shared concerns that drillers are not required to disclose the fracking chemicals they use, which can present safety issues.

The commission will look into all of this, according to McGregor, and could deny a nomination if it finds serious concerns.

“By the same token, if they do meet the safety criteria, then then I think we are obligated to approve the application,” he said.

Looking to the future or a step back?

Austin Warehime

Attorney Austin Warehime at the rally at Salt Fork State Park. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

Back at the rally, attorney Austin Warehime, told the crowd he spent a lot of time at Salt Fork growing up, but had to move away for work. He lamented that people who live in this region may jump at the chance to make money from leasing their land for well pads, or for jobs in the industry, but he doesn’t see long-term benefits for the area.

“Columbus gets a microchip factory. They get set up for the future Southeastern Ohio, they get set up for the past,” he said.

The public comment is accepted by email to Co**************@og***.gov and must contain the project nomination number.

The comment period for the Salt Fork drilling proposals runs until July 20.

7/11/23 Correction: A quote by Cathy Cowan-Becker was originally attributed to Terri Sabo.