CLEVELAND (Sept. 6, 1:30 p.m. ET) — Ohio appears to be a perennial battleground state.
This time, though, it's what's underground that is the source of an energy-rich, fuel- driven debate — one that has created a deep chasm of political and public discourse.
High-volume, horizontal hydraulic fracturing — commonly called fracking — is a controversial and relatively new drilling technology that is being used to extract oil and gas from Utica shale deposits in the Buckeye State.
This practice has dredged a well of opposition from environmentalists and citizens groups worried about the lack of regulation and groundwater contamination. Proponents in the petroleum industry and big business organizations, however, gush about its powerful economic impact and job creation in some of the most impoverished areas of the state.
This tug-of-war of facts, projections and environmental impacts surrounding the issue of fracking has resulted in dueling public relations campaigns. And while neither side will put a dollar figure to their campaigns, it's easy to say that millions of dollars are going toward swaying public opinion and political will.
“Both sides have issues to wrestle with,” said Edward “Ned” Hill, dean of the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, who was part of the research team that completed an economic impact study for the Ohio Shale Coalition in February.
“The environmentalists, who are highly skeptical of developing shale, and the industry, whose vested interest is pretty well known,” he said. “Unfortunately for the oil and gas industry, everyone has watched bad John Wayne movies, which have gushing oil derricks in the background, so there is a lot of skepticism. Nobody is going to believe anybody.”
Fracking is a hot-button issue that is easy to sensationalize, Hill said. “But if both sides don't try to get their message out, they are just going to get drowned.”
For the opposition, you have groups like Don't Frack Ohio and Network for Oil & Gas Accountability & Protection (NEOGAP).
Vanessa Pesec, president of NEOGAP, said her organization represents as many as 20 to 30 groups around the state that want fracking banned “until such time that the industry can prove, through peer-reviewed scientific studies, that this relatively new, highly industrial and invasive extraction method is safe,” she said.
To get their messages across, these grassroots groups often post yard signs with messages like: “Keep Our Community Healthy and Safe ... Stop Fracking.”
They make copies on their home computers or at the local store, and every once in a while take an advertisement out in the paper. In a beefed-up effort to get the message out, billboards that are 10 feet by 20 feet have appeared in six communities.
“Our budget is basically zero and the industry for a year or more has spent millions and millions of dollars trying to persuade Ohioans and Americans that this is safe,” Ms. Pesec said. “And I think that the reason that they need to spend so much money is because they are trying to prove something that is not true, and Americans know it.”
Meanwhile, prosperity and investment, especially in areas of the state that have had little attention since the mid-1950s and early '60s, is one of the key messages from the pro-fracking front, which includes industry leaders like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
It also includes the Ohio Shale Coalition, a broad-base group organized to assist businesses in capitalizing on opportunities created by the shale industry, which by some accounts is expected to bring more than 65,000 jobs to the state by 2014.
Weapons of choice
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce in July launched “Shale Works for US,” a multistate, multimillion-dollar campaign that includes radio and newspaper ads focused on advocacy and education. The effort's goal is to weave a national narrative about the widespread positive economic effects of shale development.
Christopher Guith, vice president for policy at the U.S. Chamber's Institute for 21st Century Energy, said the petroleum industry has done a “phenomenal” job of educating the public in the past year and of trying to “demystify some of the hyperbole that has come out of the anti-fracking crowd.”
“This is an issue that is transforming the country, and it's so hard to stand in the way of it,” Guith said, adding that the U.S. Chamber wanted to join the movement to help tell the positive story surrounding fracking.
“Our biggest asset is our credibility to the average American. We have such broad-base support and we represent every aspect of business, not just oil and gas,” Guith said.
“Obviously, we support hydraulic fracturing, but that is not necessarily what we are trying to debate here,” he said. “There is a much broader economic perspective and we want Americans, and we want Ohioans and we want businesses throughout the country to understand this other side of the story that hasn't gotten near the amount of coverage that the controversy surrounding the operations has.”
Don't Frack Ohio harnesses a different kind of currency in their PR campaign against what its supporters believe is a drilling practice of earth-shaking proportions.
“One thing in Ohio that really woke people up was the earthquake in Youngstown on New Year's Eve (2011),” said Daniel Kessler, spokesman with Don't Frack Ohio, a coalition effort of more than a dozen other organizations, spearheaded by 350.org, a movement focused on climate change. “When you start shaking the earth and having a 4.0 earthquake that has a tendency to shake up people's perspective.”
In June, Don't Frack Ohio mobilized 1,200 anti-fracking supporters to descend on the Ohio General Assembly in Columbus to sign a people's bill banning fracking in the state.
“What you are seeing is a well-organized, well-funded machine put on by the fossil fuel industry versus essentially a different currency, which is people power,” Kessler said. “What we can do is organize and try to demonstrate power by numbers ... to create such a strong anti-fracking force that the legislature would have no choice but to unwind some of the work that they did (last year).”
In many ways, there are multiple PR campaigns taking place in the state, Cleveland State's Hill said: one tailored to those immediately affected by fracking, and one for a larger statewide and national audience.
“If you go into shale country itself, it's an area which is anxious for jobs and anxious for royalty incomes so it's a very easy PR campaign,” said Hill, who adds that he is neither pro nor anti-shale. “I just think you'd be foolish not to develop the resource in a responsible way. ... I would love it if extremists on both sides would just shut up.”
Trent Dougherty, director of legal affairs for the Ohio Environmental Council, said while his organization believes the country needs to break its addiction to fossil-fuel powered energy, it realizes that the shale gas play is a reality in Ohio.
“If it continues to move forward it needs to be done in the most responsible manner. We need to have regulations put in place to protect the environmental and human health and safety,” Dougherty said.
He said it's disappointing the issue has become so contentious.
“Both sides have had to unfortunately take their corners like rabid dogs and really fight a battle that I don't think is healthy,” Dougherty said. “It has been portrayed as anyone who is not 100 percent for drilling, the "Drill baby, drill!' as much as we can, then you must want to completely ban it and never have any homegrown energy sources period.”
Some might say that industry is winning the PR battle. But Linda Woggon, executive director of Ohio Shale Coalition, said public support and understanding of fracking is critical to make the most of the jobs this industry will create.
“We don't have a really good pool of talent, skilled people ready for the jobs that this is going to result in so it's important that people understand it so they can make decisions about training they can get in order to be prepared for these jobs,” she said.
This story was part of a special report on shale gas in the Sept. 3 edition of Crain's Cleveland Business.