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Published: Saturday, 5/26/2012

COMMENTARY

Ohio fails to put the brakes on the fracking train

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

State Rep. Bob Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat, compared Ohio's fracking legislation to a "runaway locomotive." He was one of several House members who tried unsuccessfully to stop the bill approved by state lawmakers this week.

Many Ohioans are ambivalent about that speeding train and about how the rush by state leaders to accommodate oil and gas drillers could come at the public's expense. General awareness of the oil industry's accelerated interest in Ohio's natural resources is limited to what is projected about new jobs and economic revival.

That's how big money, behind the move to drill in areas of the state rich in Utica and Marcellus shale, effectively framed the fracking issue to Ohioans. The ploy worked brilliantly.

With voters fixated on the economy, politicians who might otherwise balk at the audacious demands of drillers -- no severance tax, guarded disclosure of drilling fluids, no citizen appeal of drilling permits -- caved in. Proceed at any cost.

Voices that urged environmental precaution, more transparency, greater citizen input into drilling decisions, and stricter regulation and inspection never had a chance against industry giants. The abiding influence of powerful oil and gas companies to shape driller-friendly policy in the state, starting with Gov. John Kasich's administration, overwhelmed opponents.

"It's about control," conceded Mr. Hagan, whose district experienced an earthquake on New Year's Eve that has been linked to a wastewater injection well near a fault line.

"We are really at the epicenter of the [drilling] discussion itself," he told me. But it's tough to get the prodrilling crowd to debate or even talk about community concerns, he said.

"Kowtowing politicians are still doing whatever they can to protect the industry," said the frustrated lawmaker.

State Rep. Mike Foley, the longest-serving Democrat on the House Public Utilities Committee, is equally baffled by the need to hurry comprehensive shale-gas drilling legislation.

"The measure was just thrown at us last week," said the Cleveland-area legislator. His committee heard hours of predominantly anti-fracking testimony last Monday. During the proceedings, Mr. Foley observed, House Republicans, their energy pals watching intently, had few questions.

Proponents declared that the legislation headed for the governor's signature includes the most stringent drilling, safety, and environment regulations in the country. Dozens of failed amendments introduced to strengthen drilling requirements, protect the public, and preserve the environment argued to the contrary.

Lingering reservations about the use of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," to gain access to previously out-of-reach gas and oil reserves are rejected by developers of shale gas wells and the political leaders who do their bidding. Passage of the legislation that gave drillers the upper hand on chemical disclosure was hailed by the Kasich administration, which said it would make Ohio a better steward of the environment.

Earlier, Mr. Kasich said the new policies and standards paved the way to a "more energy independent" Ohio. Missing was any reference to the regulatory latitude afforded the oil and gas industry.

To a large degree, Ohioans will have to trust the word of energy companies that they'll drill responsibly. Without a complete picture of what's in the chemical cocktail used in the fracturing process, people have no choice but to depend on the integrity of industry conglomerates.

That's scary. Profit-driven oil and gas drillers have a long history of cutting corners, choosing cheap measures over conservation, compromising air, water, and human health in a reckless gambit for riches. Why should we trust them to adhere to the highest standards in the industry before they pump chemicals under our feet?

Why should we trust them when the industry-backed legislation would gag doctors who want to share information about patients' exposure to fracking chemicals? Why should we trust them to care how much methane leaks or how many other noxious chemicals are released into the air as they drill for natural gas?

Mr. Foley cites growing research on fracking's trail of methane pollution.

"That's my biggest fear," he said.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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