Commentary for the Ohio Capitol Journal by Cathy Cowan Becker
The waterfall at Ash Cave in Ohio’s Hocking Hills State Park. Getty Images.
Some of my fondest memories have been in Ohio’s state parks, forests and wildlife areas.
Deer Creek, John Bryan, Hocking Hills, Shawnee, Maumee Bay, Kelleys Island, Mohican, and more I have yet to visit – all are treasures showing that Ohio is home not just to cities, industry and cornfields, but true natural beauty and biodiversity.
But all of that is on the chopping block, thanks to the ill-considered actions of our Ohio state legislature. During the last lame duck session, they rushed through House Bill 507, the ‘stuffed chicken’ bill – originally about poultry sales, but filled with amendments declaring fracked gas green and mandating state agencies to lease our public lands for oil and gas extraction.
Oil and gas corporations have had their eyes on our state parks, forests and wildlife areas for over a decade – until documents came to light showing then-Gov. John Kasich’s Department of Natural Resources literally running a public relations campaign for the oil and gas industry – which it is supposed to regulate – to frack our public lands. In the ensuing outcry Kasich backed off.
Now, with the passage of House Bill 507, fracking our state parks, forests and wildlife areas is back – and Republicans in power have made it clear they do not care what the people think.
In January, Gov. Mike DeWine signed the stuffed chicken bill, prompting the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission to move forward with promulgating rules to oversee leasing of our public lands for oil and gas extraction.
There are two major problems.
First, the rules, including the standard lease form, will not be in place until late May. Meanwhile, House Bill 507 went into effect April 7, forcing state agencies to open up whatever swaths of our public lands the industry wants for fracking.
State agencies will be compelled by the ‘shall lease’ clause of House Bill 507 to lease our public land for fracking until the commission’s rule gets through the approval process at the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review. At that point, lease applications will go to the commission.
Even then, our state parks and forests will still be at risk. That’s because while the lease form does not include ‘surface impacts’ – things like frack pads, access roads, pipelines, water withdrawal and tree removal – it instructs oil and gas companies that they can get these surface impacts by making a separate agreement with the state agency that manages the land.
When DeWine signed House Bill 507, he issued a statement prohibiting surface impacts in our state parks. Yet the proposed process for fracking on our public lands includes allowing oil and gas companies to have all the surface impacts they want – with no public input or oversight.
Why after 11 years of inaction are our taxpayer-supported state parks, forests and wildlife areas suddenly on the chopping block? Ask Senate President Matt Huffman. He told the Ohio Oil and Gas Association that fracking our public lands is a ‘great revenue generator’ for tax cuts.
Such tax cuts would provide disproportionate benefits to wealthy households while imposing a higher burden on the rest of us to fund critical programs in education, environment, health care, public safety and transportation, likely resulting in budget cuts and service rollbacks.
Nor is the revenue from fracking our state parks and forests certain. According to the Legislative Service Commission’s analysis of HB 507, ‘the magnitude of any new costs or royalty revenues is difficult to predict and will depend upon the specific details of the lease arrangements.’
Meanwhile, a 2019 study by Ohio State University on the Economic Value of Natural Areas in Ohio found that each year Ohioans take 171 million outdoor recreational trips in the state, spending $5.9 billion, employing 132,790 workers, and adding $8.1 billion to our state economy.
No matter how much money the oil and gas industry could make by destroying our most treasured state parks, forests, wildlife areas and other public lands, it will never come close to what our state makes now by preserving them.
On April 10, ODNR will hold a hearing on the proposed rules for fracking our public lands.
We must tell DeWine to keep his promise to protect our state parks, forests and wildlife areas from oil and gas extraction, and we must not force state agencies to give our public lands to destructive industries without any public input or oversight, just so wealthy people can get another tax cut.
We owe this to all present and future Ohioans.
Cathy Cowan Becker is public lands organizer with Buckeye Environmental Network. She is former executive director of the Columbus sustainability nonprofit Simply Living, and former chair of the Sierra Club’s Ready for 100 campaign in Ohio.