ODNR’s Communication Plan Draws Controversy

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An environmental group has discovered a controversial playbook that a state department drew up to tackle oil and gas drilling issues.

The plan calls into question the relationship between a state agency and the industry it’s supposed to regulate.

The Department of Natural Resources crafted a communications plan to educate Ohioans about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in state parks. That plan categorized groups in the state as allies and adversaries; and warned that the department’s efforts would be met with “zealous resistance by environmental activists.”

Brian Rothenberg, from the liberal think tank Progress Ohio, said the plan lays out a public relations hit list.

“It—in a very ‘Nixonian’ way—shows that the Kasich Administration through the department of Natural Resources had an enemies list over drilling in public parks and a public relations program that they put together in an effort to discredit or neutralize those groups that they thought would be opposed to drilling in public parks,” he said.

The adversary list included environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the Ohio Environmental Council, along with Democratic Representatives Bob Hagan of Youngstown and Nickie Antonio of Lakewood. The Sierra Club uncovered the memo while sifting through a batch of records it requested from the department.

Brian Kunkemoeller with the Sierra Club said the plan demonstrates a fundamental conflict with the relationship between ODNR and the oil and gas industry.

“This is a very sad day for our democracy where the industry that’s supposed to be regulating fracking and protecting our public lands is working in alliance with the industry itself,” Kunkemoeller said. “The document admits—and we agree—that this blurs the perception of ODNR’s ability to regulate oil and gas.”

According to a report from The Columbus Dispatch, Gov. John Kasich’s spokesperson said the governor’s office never knew about the plan. But the Sierra Club released another document that appears to schedule a meeting in order to discuss the communications strategy. That email is addressed to several top staffers in the governor’s office.

It was also reported that ODNR never implemented the plan. However, in light of the surfaced email, Rothenberg is questioning what is and is not true at this point.

“So the question is—what did they do on this issue? And have they had similar meetings on other issues where they’ve tried to neutralize Ohioans to protect businesses. There are even more questions than that such as—what did the governor know and when did he know it.”

Kunkemoeller adds that his group can draw direct correlations from strategies in the plan.

“I’ve been getting a lot of email response from groups all across the state who are citing specific examples of a way this has happened,” he said.

The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment on this story. The ODNR also declined to answer questions on the subject and instead offered a written statement.

The statement from department spokesperson Bethany McCorkle defends their decision to draw up a communications plan. She adds “The fact that these secretly funded extremists groups are attacking us today validates the wisdom of anticipating the attack and planning for it.”

Tom Stewart is executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, an advocacy group for the industry. Stewart was asked about the plan while talking on WCPN’s call-in show The Sound of Ideas in Cleveland.

Stewart says he hasn’t seen the memo but, from his understanding, ODNR did nothing wrong.

“So apparently what has happened is that they were looking over the lands that they were charged to oversee and were developing a plan that the General Assembly gave them authorization to do which is to lease state-owned property which is a process that goes on in nearly every other state where the state owns state property,” Stewart said.

Representatives Hagan and Antonio, the two legislators specifically called out in the memo, are expected to publicly address the plan on Tuesday.