Ohio Judge Who Banned Local Fracking Regulations Backed by Oil Industry

by | February 24, 2015

By Darrel Rowland and Jim Siegel

An Ohio Supreme Court justice lamented last week that "the oil and gas industry has gotten its way" in a decision that says local governments can't regulate drilling.

"What the drilling industry has bought and paid for in campaign contributions they shall receive."

The dissenting opinion of Justice William M. O'Neill in a fracking case was not without factual basis: Ohio's oil-and-gas industry poured about $1.4 million into the campaign coffers of legislators and other state officials in 2013-14 -- including about $8,000 for the justice who wrote the pro-industry ruling and $7,200 for another who concurred -- a Dispatch computer analysis shows.

"Ohio's oil-and-gas industry is no different from any other industry or business in supporting legislators who understand the issues and who want to pursue sound public policy," said Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association.

"It just so happens that Ohio is blessed with a lot of good and thoughtful officeholders."

Catherine Turcer, policy analyst for Common Cause-Ohio and a longtime advocate for greater campaign-finance transparency, said she was taken aback by the direct linkage of public policy and campaign cash.

"What I liked about Justice O'Neill's opinion was his willingness to point out the elephant in the room," she said. "In this case, the elephant got almost $1.5 million."

O'Neill is one of the only public figures on Capitol Square who can criticize the influence of campaign contributions and not come off sounding like a hypocrite. He raised only about $5,000 in his 2012 campaign, all from his own pocket. He did not take a single outside campaign contribution.

Justice Judith L. French authored the majority opinion in Tuesday's 4-3 ruling that said state law trumped local ordinances designed to keep fracking out. The decision was based on a 2004 law whose prime sponsor was a legislator named Tom Niehaus, a New Richmond Republican who went on to serve as Senate president.

The year after leaving office, he became a registered lobbyist for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association and BP America, concentrating on "legislation relating to the operation of oil and gas interests and operations," according to his registration. He also signed up to lobby the governor, attorney general and 17 executive-branch agencies on oil-and-gas interests.

The high-court ruling was the latest victory in state government by oil-and-gas drillers, who already have defeated two attempts by Gov. John Kasich to raise the severance tax on material they pull from the ground. Their $89,000 in contributions to Kasich's successful re-election campaign didn't stop the governor from going for an even-higher tax increase in the two-year budget he proposed this month.

The main roadblock to the quest to bring Ohio's severance tax more in line with those of other states has been the legislature, dominated by Kasich's Republican colleagues.

The top recipients of the $1.1 million-plus in contributions from oil-and-gas political-action committees during the 2013-14 election cycle is a who's who of the GOP legislative leadership. More than $180,000 flowed to Senate President Keith Faber of Lima and the current and past House speakers, Cliff Rosenberger of Clarksville and William G. Batchelder of Medina. Another $100,000 went to the Republican legislative caucuses they control.

Senate Energy Committee Chairman Troy Balderson of Zanesville got almost $40,000, while state Rep. Dave Hall of Millersburg -- who last year helped push through a bill that trimmed Kasich's proposed severance taxes -- received more than $30,000. All got cash from individuals in the oil-and-gas industry on top of the PAC money.

Within 10 days of the May 2014 House passage of the industry-favored severance-tax bill, more than $35,000 from oil-and-gas contributors made its way into various legislators' campaign accounts.

Rosenberger spokeswoman Brittany Warner said campaign contributions have "absolutely no impact" on policymaking.

"It's very concerning that a judicial opinion by a Supreme Court justice is so blatantly partisan," she said. "The speaker continues to believe in the economic benefits the oil-and-gas exploration, production and development has had on this state as a whole, localities in eastern Ohio and property owners."

Sen. Larry Obhof, who took in almost $30,000 from the oil-and-gas PACs, expressed surprise that he is among the legislature's top recipients.

"That certainly does not enter my equation at all, ever," the Medina Republican said. "In general, people tend to support candidates who want to move the state in the right direction. I think we've done a good job improving the atmosphere in Ohio and helping us get a healthier economy."

In contrast to the largess of the oil-and-gas industry, the solar-energy firm NextEra gave $23,000 to state lawmakers in the past two years, and no one got more than $2,000.

(c)2015 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)