The Ohio Attorney General is investigating allegations of falsified public comments sent to state regulators urging fracking for natural gas in state parks. An investigation by cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer found that dozens of Ohioans believe their names were used on these letters without their permission.
Earlier this year, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine signed a new law requiring state agencies to move forward with requests to drill under state-owned property.
The Oil and Gas Land Management Commission quickly wrote rules for this process and has received at least 13 proposals, called nominations, to drill for gas in eastern and southeastern Ohio, including the Zepernick Wildlife Area in Columbiana County, Valley Run Wildlife Area in Carroll County, Wolf Run State Park in Noble County, and Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County.
The nominations to frack Salt Fork include at least 25 well pads outside the park boundary. By law, the state keeps the names of companies confidential during the application process.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of drilling deep underground and injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture shale formations and extract natural gas. Horizontal lines would extend from drilling well pads just outside state park boundaries for miles under state parks and other properties. Fracking is associated with health impacts like childhood lymphoma, asthma, and premature death in the elderly, among other health impacts.
The commission received thousands of public comments about these proposals on its website. The Allegheny Front reviewed these letters and found most pro-fracking comments were form letters.
The Cleveland news outlets identified 38 people who disputed letters that were sent in their name by the Consumer Energy Alliance, a nonprofit funded in part by the oil and gas industry. One letter was purportedly submitted by a 9-year-old girl, and several by people who said they don’t even know what fracking is.
Calls to remove disputed letters
“These letters should not be part of the decision-making process, and we’ve asked them [the commission] to strike these letters from the record,” said Cathy Cowan Becker of the volunteer group Save Ohio Parks.
Becker wasn’t surprised by the findings. She said her group had a bank of volunteers call 735 people whose names were signed to pro-fracking public comments. While they could not reach most of those people, they did talk with some of them. “Our volunteers talked to 97 people who said they did not submit that letter,” Cowan Becker said.
The commission is part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates oil and gas activity in the state.
“Anyone who believes a comment was submitted without their knowledge or permission should alert the commission immediately,” said ODNR spokesperson Andy Chow in an email. “If someone confirms that they did not submit a letter that is on the public record, the commission will remove that public comment.”
But the Ohio House Minority Leader Allison Russo, a Democrat representing Upper Arlington, called these allegations deeply concerning and said the nominations should be denied until the public comment process can be rectified.
“If you’re going to drill on state parks, which a lot of people don’t support, you have [to have] a public comment process that works well and actually reflects comments from the public, not fake comments,” she said.
Ohio Attorney General David Yost has said his office is looking into it. “The attorney general takes these allegations seriously and has assigned investigative staff to look into the matter,” said AG spokesperson Bethany McCorkle in an email.
At a meeting this Monday in Columbus, the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission is expected to address these issues with the public, according to Chow at ODNR. The commission agenda says the meeting will include discussion and possible action on the 13 drilling nominations.
Looking into the origin of the letters
According to cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer, more than 1,000 of the pro-fracking letters were submitted by the Consumer Energy Alliance. The news outlets reported that people in three states over the past decade have accused the alliance of using their names on government petitions without their consent.
The company takes issue with the news outlets’ reporting.
“The article falsely and potentially libelously insinuates that CEA intentionally submitted comments to dockets regarding leases at the Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission (OGLMC) without the knowledge of the people named. This is false, and CEA has a digital chain of custody to demonstrate that,” wrote CEA President David Holt in a letter to Attorney General Yost dated Sept. 11, 2023.
“CEA will keep working with any and all relevant Ohio authorities to bring full clarity to the situation since the allegations are provably not true,” Holt wrote.
Sept. 20, 2023 Correction: Save Ohio Parks called 735 people whose names were signed on to pro-fracking letters. The story previously stated it was 435.