Opponents voice frustrations with the commission that rules on Ohio-owned land drilling permits

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (Statehouse News Bureau) — A law that could force state agencies to allow oil and gas drilling on Ohio-owned lands took effect on Friday. The state has rejected an offer from Encino Energy in Texas to drill under Salt Fork State Park, saying the process to approve drilling leases hasn’t been set up.

Athens County preschool teacher Jenny Morgan sings and plays guitar as part of her comments to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission
Athens County preschool teacher Jenny Morgan sings and plays guitar as part of her comments to the Ohio Oil and Gas Commission, which is considering draft rules for the process of permitting oil and gas leases on public lands. [Karen Kasler | Statehouse News Bureau]
A state commission moved forward on that process with a hearing Monday, with a decision on the process possible next week.

The hearing before the five-member Oil and Gas Commission was small, but all but one person who testified opposes fracking and drilling on public lands.

They said they were concerned the process will be opened wide by House Bill 507, which passed during the lame-duck session in December and was signed by Gov. Mike DeWine in January.

Four environmental groups have filed a lawsuit, saying attaching the drilling provision to a bill limiting a state minimum number on poultry livestock purchases violates the single-subject rule.

DeWine said in a December interview he was leaning toward signing the bill because of a law passed by Republican lawmakers and signed by former Gov. John Kasich in 2011.

“There’s already a bill on the books even before this bill, which says we have to allow fracking in our state parks,” DeWine said.

Aaron Dunbar from Washington County talked about the environmental impact of climate change fueled by oil and gas drilling and use.

“This is going to kill people. The ones who make decisions on behalf of the oil and gas industry know that what they are doing is going to kill people,” Dunbar said.

Athens County preschool teacher Jenny Morgan said she was speaking for people who love the state parks and for kids.

“How dare you continue to traumatize them with these choices when our parks become victims to gas and oil spills and blowouts and contamination? And it’s not if it will happen, it’s when,” Morgan said. “Ohioans will not stand for it because we love our parks. We love our children.”

Morgan brought her guitar and concluded her comments with a song called “You Can’t Drink Money”, which she’s performed at protests and other gatherings of activists opposed to drilling and fracking.

There were also some references to comments made by Senate President Matt Huffman (R-Lima), who reportedly told a conference of oil and gas industry representatives that he’s hoping drilling on public lands could help fund an income tax cut that Republicans are seeking to add to the upcoming state budget.

“Parks we support with our tax money will be handed over to oil companies to frack, to pollute, to poison, just to generate about a billion dollars a year so a few state legislators can partially fund their dubious 4% state income tax [cut],” said Melanie Zemper of Butler County.

The lone supporter of drilling on public lands at the hearing was Ohio Oil and Gas Association President Rob Brundrett. He spoke on specific changes his group would like to see to the rules the commission is considering.

“Several items in the draft lease remain as obstacles to the responsible development of the state’s oil and natural gas resources. We are hopeful that the issues outlined in our testimony today can be addressed in a revised version of the rule in the lease form,” Brundrett told the commissioners.

But when asked after the hearing about the claims of environmental, health and economic damage made by opponents, Brundrett said he didn’t want to comment, saying that his group’s testimony speaks for itself.

The commission adjourned without any decisions on the draft rules for the permitting process. But commissioners are planning a meeting on Monday where the decision could be made.