Group lobbies against anti-frack ballot issue

YOUNGSTOWN – A new group coordinated to help derail a May 7 ballot issue that could stymie natural gas drilling in Youngstown came out firing Friday morning.

“As a lawyer looking at this charter amendment, this is a very bad law,” attorney Alan Wenger of Harrington, Hoppe and Mitchell said during introductions of the group that is calling itself the Mahoning Valley Coalition for Job Growth and Investment.

From labor to management, Democrats to Republicans, and educators to bankers, the group’s diversity was as apparent as was its united goal: to promote the oil and gas industry along with environmental safety.

Calling the discovery of the Utica Shale and the economic potential it brings “one of the greatest opportunities that we have seen in a few decades,” Regional Chamber president and CEO Tom Humphries said the group will fight the ballot issue, a measure that officials said could jeopardize the area’s economic future. “We think it sends a message to the industry that we are not open for business.”

Utica Shale is a deep pocket of natural gas and oil below most of eastern Ohio. Its energy potential has been compared by some experts to the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

“The May 7 ballot issue would ban fracking and injection wells in the City of Youngstown,” Humphries said. It also would ban transportation of oilfield waste through the city, ban creation of pipelines and other midstream facilities and ban corporations from using other corporations to engage in extraction of water from any surface in Youngstown for use in extracting shale gas or oil in the city limits, along with other restrictions.

Mahoning Democratic Party chairman Dave Betras called the environmentalists’ efforts “well-intentioned” but said the proposal goes too far.

“The problem is they took a shotgun to kill a fly and they are harming a whole lot of people in the process. This piece of legislation is government by chaos because you are creating private cause of action,” Betras said.

Tom Cvetkovich, a Youngstown environmentalist who was involved in bringing the charter amendment to the ballot, disagreed with the coalition’s assessment and blamed the industry for forcing the ballot issue.

“It’s not overkill, because it’s the last resort that we have to assure the public health and safety of our water and air.”

Cvetkovich cited 2004 Ohio legislation in which local communities were banned from using local zoning authority to police oil and gas regulations.

But Wenger, an attorney who frequently represents residents battling oil and gas companies, said the legislation would penalize the residents as much as it would the companies.

“There are probably in the neighborhood of 100 oil and gas wells in the city, many of them have been here for decades,” Wenger said. “This law as it’s written literally outlaws all of those wells and criminalizes the continued use and production of those wells.”

Speaking on the topic of jobs and education, Martin Abraham, dean of Youngstown State University’s STEM College, said the university cannot train workers fast enough for the industry. Chris Jaskiewicz, COO of Valley Electrical, or VEC, in Girard, said his company last year more than doubled its payroll by adding 60 new employees in connection to the drilling industry. That brought with it a payroll, he said, of $30 million.

Humphries said the coalition likely will campaign against the issue, but so far, it has not registered as a political action committee.

“What we are doing right now is raising our voices,” said Tony Paglia, Chamber spokesman.