"Let's be clear here. The Ohio General Assembly has created a zookeeper to feed the elephant in the living room. What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive. The oil and gas industry has gotten its way, and local control of drilling-location decisions has been unceremoniously taken away. ... Under this ruling, a drilling permit could be granted in the exquisite residential neighborhoods of Upper Arlington, Shaker Heights, or the Village of Indian Hill — local zoning dating back to 1920 be damned." — Ohio Supreme Court Justice William O'Neill, Feb. 17, 2015.
The dissent in last week's Ohio Supreme Court decision was as telling as the majority opinion. In a 4-3 vote, justices ruled in favor of state legitimacy, granting Ohio regulatory powers over the oil and gas industry and stripping municipalities of long-held "home rule" governance.
Thing is, Ohio now resides along the central nerve of the wealthiest industry in the world, and there is money to be made. With judicial approval, rampant state-sanctioned drilling will continue apace, and even with science and sob stories on their side, noisy grassroots activists aren't likely to nudge or sway their elected officials. The foolhardy Davids are beginning to comprehend the shape and monolithic size of this Goliath.
"We've been trying to say that all along," Tish O'Dell says from Broadview Heights, applauding O'Neill's dissenting opinion. She's the president of the Ohio Community Rights Network, which assisted in authoring a Community Bill of Rights for her city's residents and their opposition to the health hazards posed by fracking. Other communities have taken similar steps to have their voices heard. And others still, like Munroe Falls, the complainant in the recent Ohio Supreme Court case, have passed zoning resolutions to prohibit fracking within city limits. Those zoning resolutions mean bupkis now.
"This isn't about fracking though," Munroe Falls Mayor Frank Larson says two days after the decision. "This is about home rule. And I think people are beginning to realize that this is a lot farther reaching than oil and gas well issues. But I'll tell you, residents are concerned about the safety of their drinking water, and obviously the ODNR [Ohio Department of Natural Resources] and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] aren't."
Larson is referencing another peculiar aspect of Ohio's relationship with Big Oil and Gas: Beyond laying out and then vacuuming the red carpet, our very own state agency dedicated to natural resources has become, in a literal way, the public relations arm of the industry. It's helping to implement and expedite (and, more dangerously, to promote) the very activities which have residents across the state up in arms.
We've glanced through community newspapers and seen the frustration, confusion and widespread opposition to this industry, one which, despite assurances to the contrary, hasn't made good on promises made in the past. With no end in sight, we sought out reasons why in Ohio, this time around, things might be different; why in Ohio, the jobs will stay and the economy will prosper and the environment will thrive without blemish or smirch.
Here, in what is conceived as the first in an ongoing exploratory series, we present a guiding look at what the heralding of hydraulic fracturing means for all of us and what Goliath is planning for our state.
"I remember back in '05, there was an administrative appeal because the state legislature had rewritten the bill with permitting issues," Larson says. "And Justice O'Neill during oral arguments asked the lawyer for the oil and gas people, 'So what, are you guys God?' And as I remember it, their response was, 'Uh, yeah.'"
The conventional wisdom on oil and gas drilling trajectories goes something like this: There's a boom, and then there's a bust. No one much considers the bust amid the boom, and right now business is booming in Ohio.
Sometime in 1859, a blacksmith named William Jeffrey plugged the loamy earth in Trumbull County with Ohio's first oil well. There are now more than 200,000 oil and gas wells dotting the Buckeye State. Some are very small and localized operations. Others are behemoths in the most visual sense of the word, vomiting black gold and natural gas to export terminals along the Gulf, the Canadian provinces and locations more exotic.
Ohio's modern oil and gas drilling kicked off with boom cycles in the 1960s, where the Trempealeau Dolomite "play" brought prospecting corporations out to Morrow County, that bucolic stretch of I-71 between Mansfield and Columbus. (In industry vernacular, a vast, unified stretch of resource-soaked bedrock is called a "play.") Since then, the drilling has never really stopped. As the Trempealeau Dolomite began coughing up millions of barrels of oil, profiteers tapped the Rose Run reservoir in Ashland County and then set sights on southeast Ohio's Trenton and Clinton Sandstone plays.
What we're witnessing now is the ravaging of the Marcellus formation, which, when discovered and probed with 21st-century horizontal-drilling technology, shifted gravitational centers from Texas and the Dakotas toward bedrock sprawled across western Pennsylvania. The Utica, a deeper play with a greater concentration of rich, wet natural gas in eastern Ohio, is where the action's been lately. Since 2000, the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and surrounding acreage has become the hottest drilling tip in the world.
"Fracking," though, has become something of a dirty word in the executive circles that like to use euphemisms to disguise unsavory ideas ("eliminating redundancies" as opposed to "firing," for example). But it's true that "fracking" is slang for "hydraulic fracturing," and it's the process whereby water, sand and assorted chemicals are injected underground at extreme pressures to dislodge and release the oils and gases trapped inside.
Only lately has fracking taken off in a way that's completely restructured the energy industry as a whole. When combined with horizontal-drilling technology, companies can drill into shale plays and extract huge amounts of natural gas. Gas extraction and transportation is measured in billions of cubic feet per day, and estimates of the Utica play put the possible take at 38 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (and 940 million barrels of oil), according to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey.
The big arguments in favor of fracking are that 1) it creates beaucoup jobs and manufacturing infrastructure; 2) it dramatically increases domestic production of oil and gas, thereby decreasing U.S. reliance on imports; and 3) at least according to industry literature, it actually helps in the crusade against climate change because it's a lot less harmful than coal.
On the flipside, environmentalists and most experts divested from politics say that 1) the global warming benefits are either overhyped or downright false; 2) the industry itself enjoys exemption from major EPA laws and is poorly regulated across the board; and 3) it has led to air and water pollution, to say nothing of earthquakes (like the 3.0-magnitude quake felt in Poland Township last year and others in far Northeast Ohio). The stories of nosebleeds, rashes, miscarriages and assorted undiagnosable ailments are all becoming commonplace in communities living near fracking sites nationwide.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo enacted a statewide ban on fracking in December; in Ohio, however, no such statement from the top man exists. The same studies notably are available to Kasich as were available to Cuomo.
A hypothesis-driven study conducted by Yale University in September 2014, for instance, found "increased reporting of upper respiratory symptoms" and "dermal" problems in well-saturated southwest Pennsylvania, just across the state line. Symptoms reported at atypically high rates included: chronic bronchitis, itchy eyes, sore throats, high blood pressure, ulcers and such ilk.