The Ohio Department of Natural Resources crafted a communications plan to educate Ohioans about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in state parks. That plan categorized groups in the state as allies and adversaries; and warned that the department’s efforts would be met with “zealous resistance by environmental activists.”
Shades of Nixon's enemies list
Brian Rothenberg, from the liberal think tank Progress Ohio says the plan lays out a public-relations hit list.
Rothenberg says ODNR approached the PR challenge "in a very ‘Nixonian’ way" and that "the Kasich administration through the Department of Natural Resources had an enemies list over drilling in public parks and a public relations program that they put together in an effort to discredit or neutralize those groups that they thought would be opposed to drilling in public parks.”
Reps. Antonio and Hagan targeted as fracking adversaries
The adversary list included environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council, along with Democratic Reps. Bob Hagan of Youngstown and Nickie Antonio of Lakewood.
The Sierra Club uncovered the memo while sifting through a batch of records it requested from the department.
Brian Kunkemoeller with the Sierra Club says this plan demonstrates a fundamental conflict with the relationship between ODNR and the oil and gas industry.
“This is a very sad day for our democracy where the agency that’s supposed to be regulating fracking and protecting our public lands is working in alliance with the industry itself.," Kunkemoeller says. "The document admits — and we agree — that this blurs the perception of ODNR’s ability to regulate oil and gas.”
A statement issued by the governor's spokesman Rob Nichols after the story broke says, “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. If we didn’t, these same extremist groups would be attacking us for not planning ahead.”
According to a report from The Columbus Dispatch, a spokesman for Gov. John Kasich says the governor’s office never knew about this plan. But the Sierra Club released another document that appears to schedule a meeting in order to discuss this communications strategy. That email is addressed to several top staffers in the governor’s office.
And ODNR says it never implemented the plan. However, in light of the surfaced email, Progess Ohio's Rothenberg is questioning what's true.
Trust in ODNR eroded
And Rothenberg questions where the state agency stands, "Have they had similar meetings on other issues where they’ve tried to neutralize Ohioans to protect businesses?" he asks. "What did the governor know and when did he know it.”
Kunkemoeller adds that his group can draw direct correlations from strategies in the plan. He says groups from across the state "are citing specific examples of a way this has happened.”
ODNR characterizes it as defense against extremists
The ODNR would not answer questions on the subject, offering only a written statement from department spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle.
She defends the decision to draw up a communications plan, adding, “the fact that these secretly funded extremists groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it.”
Tom Stewart is executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, an advocacy group for the industry. Stewart was asked about the plan while talking on WCPN’s call-in show The Sound of Ideas in Cleveland. Stewart says he hasn’t seen the memo but, from his understanding, ODNR did nothing wrong.
Stewart says ODNR is acting in accordance with the wishes of the Legislature, and "were developing a plan that the General Assembly gave them authorization to do, which is to lease state-owned property -- a process that goes on in nearly every other state where the state owns state property.”
Reps. Hagan and Antonio, the two legislators specifically called out in the memo, are expected to address the plan on Tuesday.