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Note to Athens, Ohio, residents: Your mayor and other elected officials in your part of Ohio are fringe extremists.
You may disagree with that statement, but then, you probably support the Washington bureaucrats who halted leasing in the Wayne National Forest for fracking. What’s that? It wasn’t a Washington bureaucrat who made that decision but, rather, a forester in Ohio?
Well, as Emily Litella used to say on Saturday Night Live: Never mind.
With apologies to the late Gilda Radner, these claims about fringe elements and Washington bureaucrats owe themselves to Josh Mandel, the Ohio treasurer. Mandel, a Republican now running for U.S. Senate, criticized incumbent U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, after Brown told Ohio Public Radio on Nov. 28 that he supports a local decision to remove 3,302 acres of national forest in southeast Ohio from a federal auction of land for oil and gas exploration.
The land is in a part of the state where hydraulic fracking could yield big dividends, although there are a lot of uncertainties. Fracking is shorthand for fracturing, and it involves drilling deep into the ground and injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the shale and release the natural gas or oil trapped there. Geologists and energy industry officials say a potential windfall of gas lies in the Utica shale formation, and to a lesser extent the Marcellus shale, beneath eastern Ohio.
Fracking has its critics, including those who say the chemicals used in the process might contaminate groundwater. A number of experts, including the geologists at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, say fracking is safe and that human error, the real cause of problems, can be avoided with proper state regulation.
We mention that because Anne Carey, supervisor of the Wayne National Forest, was concerned about fracking’s impact on the Wayne National Forest. She recommended that the forest be removed from the Dec. 7 federal auction until there could be further review. That could take up to six months, and will deal with fracking’s effect on forest land, not groundwater. A Wayne National Forest already allows for other drilling -- and there are 1,300 shallow wells there -- but fracking could require removing far more trees, according to The Columbus Dispatch.
In an interview, Brown said he supported Carey’s decision, noting that numerous local officials had concerns about fracking in the area.
Mandel then criticized Brown.
In a Dec. 2, 2011, column Mandel wrote in The Wall Street Journal, the treasurer said: "Adding to the public outrage here is the position taken by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, who this week announced his support of the federal government's job-killing decision. Even though the vilification of Ohio's abundant coal, oil and gas disproportionately hurts jobs and energy prices here, Mr. Brown has chosen to side with Washington bureaucrats and fringe extremists in the attacks on our natural resources."
PolitiFact Ohio decided to look at the last part of his claim; that Brown has chosen to side with bureaucrats and fringe extremists.
We started with the part about "Washington bureaucrats."
Carey, who made the recommendation, told The Athens News that her entire career with the Forest Service "has been at the local level."
Jane Cliff, the media officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s eastern region, headquartered in Milwaukee, told us that Chuck Myers, the region’s forester, accepted it and the Wayne National Forest was removed from the auction. Myers also is based in Milwaukee.
As for the "fringe extremists," among the people who wanted to apply the brakes in the Wayne National Forest were Roderick McDavis, president of Ohio University; the Athens County commissioners, and Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl.
Wiehl won re-election recently in what could be called a landslide, getting 71 percent of the vote, according to The Athens News. Granted, Athens is a university town with a lot of Democrats, and Wiehl wants to keep fracking out of the city. But so did his Republican opponent, according to news coverage.
Wiehl told PolitiFact Ohio his concern is that there is a gold rush-like frenzy to frack because of the potential for prosperity, without what he considers to be enough caution. An accident in the forest near the Hocking River basin could affect Athens’ drinking water.
"I don’t consider myself to be fringe-like," he said. "I consider myself to be cautious or a little bit conservative as to how this is done."
There has been a lot of debate about this issue in southeast Ohio. Mandel has tapped into that, with his spokesman calling this "a defining issue over the next year" and Mandel saying that the fracking boom represents a way out of economic stagnation.
But does the removal of acreage in Wayne National Forest represent a real setback to this boom? We asked Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, how much land in the scheme of Ohio fracking this represents.
"The bulk of eastern Ohio is leased," he said. "I don’t know what that acreage would be. It would be a huge number."
In other words, fracking is going on in so many other places that the Wayne acreage represents a mere blip. The Plain Dealer and other newspapers have reported that one company alone, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy, has leased 1.5 million acres in Ohio so it can drill 12,000 wells. And The Plain Dealer reported in October that gas and oil-rich shale may lie under 5 million acres of rural Ohio landscape.
That compares with 3,302 acres that the Wayne has taken off the table for now.
So let’s recap:
Josh Mandel is all for fracking if it follows safe, acceptable practices. He sees it as a potentially huge economic win for Ohio. Sherrod Brown says he, too, is for fracking, but he says he understands the concerns of the Wayne National Forest supervisor, the mayor of Athens, the county commissioners and the university president, and he supports the decision for a delay to allow further study.
It would be easy to just say that Brown’s support for fracking comes with more qualifications, or that he deferred to the local officials. It would be true. But it would lack outrage, and outrage, apparently, is what Mandel was going for. He said that Brown sided with "fringe extremists," when these individuals happen to be a mayor, county commissioners and a state university president. And Mandel said Brown sided with "Washington bureaucrats," when the woman making the call was in Ohio. Her boss who signed off was in Wisconsin.
Political criticism is fair game. But it’s a stretch to equate a national forest supervisor in Southeast Ohio and her boss in Wisconsin as Washington bureaucrats.
And when rhetoric gets ridiculous -- when a public official running for office implies that an Ohio mayor, county commissioners, a major university president and a federal forest supervisor are fringe extremists -- PolitiFact Ohio has one rating for it: Pants on Fire!
Josh Mandel news release, Nov. 28, 2011
The Wall Street Journal, "Washington targets Ohio shale gas," op-ed piece by Josh Mandel, Dec. 2, 2011
Statehouse News Bureau of Ohio Public Radio, "Candidates for U.S. Senate talk about support for fracking -- but split over one place to do it," by Karen Kasler, Nov. 28, 2011
The Columbus Dispatch, "Fracking fears delay lease auction in Wayne National Forest," by Spencer Hunt, Nov. 16, 2011
Wayne National Forest, news release, "Forest Service halts sale of mineral leases until further review," Nov. 15, 2011
Telephone interview with Gary Chancey, spokesman, Wayne National Forest, Dec. 1, 2011
Telephone interview with Jane Cliff, media officer for U.S. Forest Service, eastern division, Dec. 1, 2011
Telephone interview with Athens Mayor Paul Wiehl, Dec. 5, 2011
Telephone interview with Tom Stewart, executive vice president, Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Dec. 1, 2011
The Athens News, "Wiehl, Papai, both win easily in city elections," by Devid DeWitt, Nov. 9, 2011
The New Political, "Wiehl, Morris debate Bobcat lane, fracking, safety," by Caitlin Turner, Oct. 26, 2011
Ohio University President Roderick McDavis, letter to Bureau of Land Management protesting leasing of parcels in Wayne National Forest, Oct. 6, 2011
The Athens News, "GOP Senate candidate slams Wayne lease reversal," by Jim Phillips, Nov. 22, 2011
The Plain Dealer, "Analysts critical of Chesapeake Energy for spending billions on gas and oil leases, including Ohio leases," by John Funk, Nov. 18, 2011
The Plain Dealer, "Rural Ohio is the Wild West and gas and oil companies compete for drilling rights," by John Funk, Oct. 22, 2011
The Plain Dealer, "Gov. Kasich touts economic possibilities of oil and gas reserves in eastern Ohio," by Joe Guillen, July 29, 2011
Akron Beacon Journal, "Natural gas, oil reserves are big, Ohio is estimating,," by Bob Downing, Nov. 2, 2011
Ohio Department of Natural Resources, "Shale Development," website for shale and fracking information
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