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Ohio commission awards bids to frack oil and gas under state parks, wildlife areas

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — An Ohio commission awarded bids to frack oil and gas under state parks Monday, despite statewide backlash and an ongoing investigation into possibly fraudulent support.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission granted the mineral rights to several oil and gas companies, allowing them to frack for oil and gas under land owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Department of Transportation, including state parks and designated wildlife areas.

The Texas-based Encino Energy Partners was granted the rights to frack under Valley Run Wildlife Area and Zepernick Wildlife Area. The West Virginia-based Infinity Natural Resources, LLC, can frack under Salt Fork State Park. These and other entities are now cleared to receive leases from the state and must discuss permits and other details with state regulators.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources will receive $59.7 million in bonuses under the fracking leases and each lease includes a 12.5% royalty paid to the state for production.

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Fracking is a technique used to extract natural gas or oil from impermeable rock formations. Water, chemicals and sand are blasted into these formations at pressures high enough to crack the rock, which allows trapped gas and oil to flow to the surface.

The department said in an emailed statement that the leases include provisions such as water quality testing and restricted drilling times.

Commission chair Ryan Richardson also emphasized at the Monday meeting that according to the language in the awarded leases, no surface areas of the parks would be disturbed by drilling as it would occur underground and the well pads would be offsite.

Richardson did not make herself available for comment Monday.

Protesters filled the meeting room as they have consistently since last year, when nominations for the land to be fracked were first discussed. Many cried “shame,” and held signs in front of the meeting’s livestream cameras. Some had makeup on their faces to appear diseased and wore sacks with signs that read “disease” and “drought” among other effects of climate change.

The commission has faced multiple legal challenges, including an appeal brought by Earthjustice, a nonprofit that helps litigate environmental issues. The organization filed it in Franklin County Court of Common Pleas last year, on behalf of advocacy groups including the Ohio Environmental Council and Save Ohio Parks, among others.

The groups were appealing the state’s decision to open up the land to bids last November, arguing that the commission did not follow the bidding process outlined in state law and violated the state’s open meetings requirements.

But a Franklin county judge said that the groups lacked authority to bring the appeal in the first place and dismissed the appeal Friday.

“Climate change is real, and it is here,” Save Ohio Parks' steering committee said in a statement. “Salt Fork State Park, Valley Run Wildlife Area, and Zepernick Wildlife Area are just the first to come under attack. Save Ohio Parks will continue advocating to protect our public lands.”

Fracking opponents decried the commission as being “sheep” and giving in to corporate greed at the expense of Ohio greenspace. They also say the commission lacks transparency, as there have been no public hearings on the bids and they didn't know who was bidding on the land, despite the lands being taxpayer funded.

State law mandates that the entities who nominated the land for fracking and those that bid on the land must remain anonymous until the bidding process is complete. The amounts that companies paid for land mineral rights was not immediately disclosed.

Opponents have also criticized the commission for continuing the process amid an investigation by the Ohio Attorney General's office into possibly fraudulent letters sent in support of fracking.

A Cleveland.com investigation last fall found that over a hundred Ohio residents said their names were attached to form letters sent to the commission in a public comment period without their knowledge — all of them urging state parks to allow fracking.

The letters could be traced back to multiple pro-oil entities, including Consumer Energy Alliance, a Texas-based pro-oil and gas organization. The alliance has denied collecting names without permission and has called Cleveland.com’s coverage of the situation “libelous.”

“CEA has cooperated fully with the Attorney-General’s Office at every step. While the situation is ongoing, we can make no further comment," Bryson Hull, a spokesperson for the alliance, said in an emailed statement.

A spokesperson for the Ohio Attorney General's office said they are still completing the investigation and will make information available “at the appropriate time.” ___

Samantha Hendrickson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Samantha Hendrickson, The Associated Press