Monday, February 17, 2014

ODNR's draft fracking PR memo itself turns into a PR fiasco

Contained within a 10-page document labeled “draft” and “summary,” the Ohio Department of Natural Resources sought to defuse criticism of hydrofracking even as the agency was assigned the task of regulating the practice.

The August 26, 2012 memo came to light after the Sierra Club made a public records request for the document's release. The memo was released Feb. 14.

Now that the memo is being circulated within the realm of public domain, the Department's initial talking stage helps illuminate just how serious the agency has sought to defend the controversial petroleum extraction processes on certain state-owned lands.

Yet the memo also spells out that the defense embraces more than just the Natural Resources Department and potential conflicts of interest. It also signals that any public relations bulwark will help shore up Gov. John Kasich's backing of fracking within Ohio's state parks and state forest systems.

Even so, for those within the environmental community the memo amounts to a coup that helps them better articulate that the current Natural Resources Department upper-layer chain-of-command and the Governor himself are less than environmentally friendly.

Under the memo's “Communication Problems to Solve” header the document spells out an enemies list of sorts to which both the Department and the Kasich Administration must just as skillfully combat:

“An initiative to proactively open state park and forest land to horizontal drilling/hydraulic fracturing will be met with zealous resistance by environmental activist opponents, who are skilled propagandists. “Neutral parties in particular – such as ordinary citizens concerned about their families' health – will be vulnerable by opponents that the initiative represents dangerous and radical state policy by Gov. Kasich.”

(Note: Emphasis appear within the document itself and are not editorially added.)

Further, the document reads how the “environmental activist opponents” will use their own slick media-attention ploys to sway both editorial backing as well as citizen sympathy.

Under the header “Communication Obstacles and Constraints,” the memo includes several likely tactics opponents of state park/state forest hydrofracking could be expected to employ.

Among the points the Natural Resources Department drew was calling state park/state forest fracking opponents “vocal adversaries” who will “communicate emotionally and aggressively to the news media and online to cast this initiative as “risky and radical.”

Stepping out on the ledge even more the writer(s) of the Natural Resources' memo even go so far as to state that opponents will not only attempt to seek redress in the courts but likewise could be expected to “physically halt the drilling” as well as attempt to “create public panic about perceived health risks,” and seek to use “proxies” in the media in an effort to slant news coverage against us.”

And lastly how the initiative “could blur public perception of ODNR's regulatory role in oil and gas.”

Though the memo is old enough that it anticipated fracking to commence in 2012, the text does stress that anticipating problems ahead of time and taking a pro-fracking stance before so-called “important audiences” will help “ understanding, foster support, counter opponents' criticism and minimize public concerns regarding the initiative.”

The memo does bring out its defensive weaponry, citing how drilling royalties will help both the department's Parks and Recreation Division and its Forestry Division with limited environmental risks and no park/forest user objectionable land-surface scarring.

To help sell the initiative the Natural Resources Department's memo names a number of business associations and even one corporation as “allied groups and forums (both current and potential).”

Among the memo's stated and hoped-for supporters are several chambers of commerces, the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Halliburton, FracFocus as well as four state government units besides the Natural Resources Department.

Among the latter were Gov. Kacish's office, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the Ohio Department of Health, and JobsOhio of the Ohio Department of Development.

For the moment the Natural Resources Department appears to believe the memo is a tempest in a teapot and was noting more than a sort of in-house working document that never really piloted the first hole, let alone became a full-blown gusher.

“The (Ohio) legislature approved the leasing of state land for oil and gas mineral extraction in 2011. This initial draft was a communications plan drafted for the roll out of the new law in the event our land was subject to leasing,” said Natural Resources Department spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle.

Ultimately the initiative never advanced beyond the conceptual stage for the simple reason the Natural Resources Department's parks and forest lands remain fracking-free.

Thus the document was strictly used “for discussion purposes,” McCorkle said.

“Frankly, any agency or business that would announce a major policy decision without a strategic plan is setting itself up for failure,” McCorkle said.

Even so, it is the document's inflammatory “us verses them”rhetoric that includes the poke-in-the-eye jab “eco-left pressure groups” that would need to be “marginalized” that has Ohio's environmental community in an uproar.

“We've often defended the ODNR from charges it was too industry friendly,” said Jack Shaner, director of media relations for the Columbus-based Ohio Environmental Council. “Not today.”

Certainly, adds also the Ohio Environmental Council's staff attorney, the state ought not to be “frittering valuable time and taxpayer money on a (Public Relations) campaign designed to 'neutralize' legitimate concerns” about conducting fracking activities on state-owned parks and forest lands.

“The ODNR should be an impartial watchdog, not an industry cheerleader,” said Nathan Johnson, the Environmental Council's attorney. “It's shocking to learn the ODNR laid plans to actively enlist the help of extractive industries to 'marginalize' respected voices for the preservation or our natural heritage.”

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

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