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The Fracking Industry's Contempt for the Public Is Finally Coming to Light

Recent disclosures reveal little else but a interest in making profits.
 
 
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Exxon CEO and unlikely fractivist Rex Tillerson
Photo Credit: World Economic Forum

 
 
 
 

Phrases like, “natural gas,” “cleaner than coal,” “energy independence,” and “radical environmentalists” were deployed to create a popular mandate for shale gas development, and to discount fracking critics. While it seems likely that gas-industry spin doctors honed these deft marketing terms prior to the nationwide explosion in fracking, neither reporters nor the public have been privy to the behind-the-scenes machinations, until now.

This past week a leak, a report and a lawsuit have given a rare glimpse of what the gas industry really thinks about the public (easily manipulated), environmentalists (extremely effective) and fracking (not in my backyard).

These developments also shine a harsh light on the untenable role of many state environmental departments. While some might naïvely assume that in government agencies, the public good still stands foremost, that assumption fails to probe: “How can a department charged with both environmental protection and business development effectively protect public health and the environment?”

It seems it can’t. The dysfunction built into this contradictory yet all too common structure places regulators in the awkward position of collaborating with industry, while assuring the public that the commons, health and the environment are protected. The corruption inherent in this structure was revealed this week by an August 2012 memo produced by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which regulates drilling in Ohio. Intended to spearhead a PR campaign to promote fracking in state parks and forests, the 10-page memo (which was published last week in the Columbus Dispatch ) sought to develop “precise messaging and coordination” to “blur public perception of ODNR’s regulatory role in oil and gas.”

Specifically, the plan sought collaboration with gas and oil industry allies like Halliburton to foil Ohio citizens opposed to fracking. After this memo surfaced, Ohio Governor John Kasich denied any knowledge, but the publication of an August 2012 email confirmed that his senior staff had been invited to attend a meeting for the PR campaign. This week a spokeswoman for ODNR’s Natural Resources department, which spearheaded the PR effort, defended it, saying:

Any responsible organization plans in advance what it is going to do, especially when it knows it is going to face fierce opposition to progress. The fact that these secretly funded extremist groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it.

Secretly funded? Grassroots fractivist organizations subsist on grants and small supporter donations. But what about the state’s proposed PR outreach? Would Ohioans have been footing the bill for a campaign to support gas companies and target citizens?

The original memo language echoed the implication that citizens opposed to fracking are extremists, calling them “zealous” and “skilled propagandists.” Opponents of hydraulic fracturing would “attempt to create public panic” requiring Ohio government to be ready for "sustained legal countermeasures and crisis readiness.” It’s also clear from the spokeswoman’s statement where ODNR’s misleadingly titled Natural Resources office stands. Industrial development = progress. Citizens who want to protect water and air quality, property values, and communities are labeled “extremists.”

In 2011, Governor Kasich had signed into law permissions for drilling on public lands, including state parks and forests, but thus far these have not been implemented. In the wake of these recent revelations, Kasich withdrew his plan to frack on these public lands. Meanwhile Democratic legislators launched an investigation into the PR plan, asserting that the Kasich administration “is working with the oil and gas industry instead of independently regulating it.”

The real question? Is Ohio’s dysfunctional environmental regulatory agency an anomaly or the norm?

In the original Gasland film, filmmaker Josh Fox visits John Hanger, then head of the PA Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), another agency with the conflicting mandate of protecting the environment and supporting the gas and oil industry. Fox asks Hanger what the department will do to address complaints of well water contamination by nearby fracking operations. Hanger claims that he stands ready to discuss them, but he hasn’t heard of any.

 
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