Prove your humanity

A state commission this week approved four proposals to drill for natural gas and oil on some state-owned lands, but delayed action on fracking in Ohio state parks.

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Before the meeting at the offices of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in Columbus, activists rallied outside, holding signs and singing songs. Winifred Wirth, dressed as Mother Nature, with a flowing green dress and woodland crown, held a sign that read, “It’s not nice to frack.” Other signs read, “Shame shame shame,” and “Deny All Nominations.”


“We do believe that state parks and all our public lands in Ohio belong to the people, not to one political administration, not to the gas and oil industry. So that’s really why we’re here today — to keep our parks safe for future generations,” said Melinda Zemper, steering committee member of Save Ohio Parks, a group formed to try to stop Ohio from leasing state-owned lands for energy development.

When the meeting started inside, the activists packed the conference room, calling out their displeasure as the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission started its work of considering 13 nominations, or proposals, to frack for natural gas on state lands.

A conference room full of people with signs and costumes

Activists in the room during the meeting of the Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission. Photo: Julie Grant / The Allegheny Front

The commission started by addressing the elephant in the room: Allegations made by Cleveland dot com, the Plain Dealer and Save Ohio Parks that at least 150 pro-fracking public comments submitted in support of the nominations were falsified. The Attorney General’s office has started an investigation.

The Save Ohio Parks group was hopeful the investigation meant the commission would delay its consideration of the nominations or deny them. But Commission Chair Ryan Richardson had other ideas about the impact of possible false public comments.

“That is not going to alter my decision-making today,” she said. “So I would propose that we do continue to move forward with our task today in discussing these nominations.”  

Four of the nominations proposed fracking on Ohio Department of Transportation properties. The Commission approved those.

But their work got bogged down when looking at nominations to frack Ohio Department of Natural Resources lands in the Zepernick and Valley Run wildlife areas, Wolf Run and Salt Fork state parks.

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The commission debated recommendations for additional protections submitted by ODNR, such as limiting road use in these places by fracking operators, reduction of noise and light pollution, limitations on fracking activities during some hunting seasons, and a setback of 1,000 feet for all well pads from park or wildlife area boundaries. 

In public comments submitted to the commission, the Ohio Oil and Gas Association took issue with these recommendations. 

“The proposed contract threatens to impair existing contracts with neighbors who have already agreed to allow the use of the surface of their properties for well-pad construction,” wrote the association’s Gregory Russell. “Depriving those neighbors of the ability to make productive use of their lands.”

Still, Richardson, who was appointed by the ODNR, wanted the commission to vote to approve all of the agency’s recommendations.

We think these buffers and these additional restrictions are necessary in order to minimize the impact. And if those restrictions are in place, then at that point in time, then we believe that the commission can move forward to approve those,” she said. 

But other commissioners, like Stephen Buehrer, wanted to modify the ODNR recommendations to be less restrictive. He doesn’t think the state should prohibit all oil and gas workers and contractors from driving to work on state properties.

That seems reasonable as long as they’re not running their operation through the roadways of the state park,” Buehrer said. 

Concerns over royalties for the state

Matthew Warnock had another concern: The state has a fixed royalty of 12.5 percent, which he says is much less than market value, and the state would be losing out on revenue.

“I have a lot of heartburn about moving forward with these larger parcels without giving the legislature an opportunity to potentially fix that issue,” he said.

Economic impact is one criterion the commission is supposed to look at when deciding nominations. Activists want the commission to consider the fracking revenue against the contribution outdoor recreation brings to the state’s economy. According to a study by Ohio State University, outdoor recreation totaled some $8 billion dollars and more than 130,000 jobs in 2017.

However, the commission did not look at the specifics of the nominations nor the criteria to make these decisions, such as economic and environmental impacts, impact on visitors, and public and agency comments.

After an impasse over ODNR’s recommendations, the commission voted to delay consideration of the parks and wildlife area proposals until its yet to scheduled next meeting, likely in October.