Ohio commission approves fracking in state parks and wildlife areas despite fraud investigation

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Some state parks can be fracked in Ohio, a decision made by a government commission Wednesday despite an ongoing investigation into claims of possible fraudulent support by an industry group that represents energy companies.

During a raucous meeting attended by many fracking opponents, the Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission OK'd several parcels for fracking by outside entities — all of them owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Department of Transportation — that include state parks and designated wildlife areas.

Under state law, the identities of those who nominated the land for oil and gas drilling are confidential.

The vote took place during a tense public meeting at which anti-fracking protesters held up signs that read “DENY” and “Save Our Parks.”

Advocates accused the state board members of lacking transparency, upholding the interests of corporate greed and poisoning future generations. Some threw money in front of the commissioners and shouted them out of the state meeting, while others sang protest songs in and chanted “Don't frack our futures," and “Shame.”

A member of Save Ohio Parks, Cathy Cowan Becker, said opponents were disappointed by the vote but vowed to continue to show up to meetings.

“At a time when the science is telling us we have to stop all the oil and gas, instead we're doing this in our parks,” Cowan Becker said. “We're rightfully really angry about this.”

The decision is the first of its kind in Ohio, although laws allowing fracking have been on the books since 2011.

Legislation under then- Gov. John Kasich, a former Republican presidential candidate, called for a state board to allow state-owned land to be “leased for the exploration for and development and production of oil or natural gas."

The commission was formalized in 2017 under the Kasich administration following the 2011 legislation and held its first meeting in March 2018.

Commission chair Ryan Richardson emphasized in a previous commission meeting that according to the language in the nominated leases, no surface areas of the parks would be disturbed by oil and gas drilling as it would occur underground.

However, most of the meeting Wednesday was nearly impossible to hear over the boos and chants of environmental advocates in the room.

A spokesperson for Richardson said she would respond to reporters' questions later Wednesday.

Oil and gas fracking is often a polarizing topic, but ongoing accusations of fraudulent support have added even more tension to the vote.

A Cleveland.com investigation in September found that over a hundred Ohio residents said their names were attached to form letters sent to the commission in a public comment period without their knowledge — all of them urging state parks allow fracking.

Those names included a 9-year-old girl and a blind woman. The form letter, which appears over 1,000 times in the public comment database, urges Ohio to “responsibly” lease rights to minerals under Salt Fork State Park, among other areas.

The 9-year-old's mother, Brittany Keep, told Cleveland.com that her daughter knows nothing about oil and gas exploration and neither of them have visited Salt Fork State Park.

The letters could be traced back to multiple pro-oil entities, including Consumer Energy Alliance, a Texas-based pro-oil and gas organization. The energy alliance has denied collecting names without permission and has called Cleveland.com's coverage “libelous.” The nonprofit collects and verifies those names and other demographic data through a third party, according to the group's spokesperson, Bryson Hull.

Citing their contract, the energy group says they cannot reveal who that third party is or the data they collected, Hull said.

It isn’t the first time the alliance has come under scrutiny for claims it used residents’ names in government petitions and public comments without their knowledge. The group had been accused of the same issue in Wisconsin in 2014, Ohio in 2016 and South Carolina in 2018.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, a Republican, said in September he would investigate any possible crimes committed through the use of the letters. A spokesperson for Yost, Bethany McCorkle, told The Associated Press Wednesday that “this is still an open investigation” and that “there are not any additional details that can be shared at this time.”

Environmental advocates and state Democrats have asked Yost to provide an update ahead of the Wednesday vote.

“A thorough investigation is imperative so Ohioans have confidence that any state process meant to include public input is, in fact, functioning to reflect public opinion and not another conduit for public corruption,” said House Minority Leader Allison Russo in a statement Wednesday.

The energy alliance is fully cooperating with Yost's office, Hull said in September.

Anyone who comes forward to the commission and can confirm letters in their name were sent without their knowledge are encouraged to contact the commission, said Ohio Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Andy Chow. He said their name will be removed from public comment.

The approved parcels will now be put into a confidential bidding process, in which organizations can put in their bid to frack on the land. ___

Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. ___

This story was first published on November 15, 2023. It was updated November 17, 2023 to correct that an Ohio commission to consider fracking on public lands was formalized in 2017 and first met in March 2018, not December 2022. It has also been corrected to show the investigation by the state attorney general’s office involves the Consumer Energy Alliance, an organization that includes energy companies, not the companies themselves. The story also said the alliance had previously come under fire in Ohio and elsewhere for using residents’ names in government petitions and public comments without their knowledge and should have stated those were allegations.