APNewsBreak: Ohio AG seeks tougher drilling laws

JULIE CARR SMYTH Associated Press Published:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) -- Ohio's top law enforcer is advocating increased environmental sanctions on polluters in the oil and gas industry and required disclosures of the chemicals used in the drilling technique called fracking that would be among the toughest in the nation.

In a Wednesday interview with The Associated Press, Republican Attorney General Mike DeWine called for hiking civil penalties to $10,000 a day from the current maximum of $20,000 per incident. That would bring fines in line with states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado and Texas.

Requiring up-front information from drillers on the contents of any fluids blasted into the earth during fracking, formally known as hydraulic fracturing, also is in line with states including Colorado and Michigan, according to a staff review conducted by DeWine's office. He said he would like to see disclosure of both chemicals used and in what concentrations, not only out of environmental concern but also to help emergency workers dispatched to drilling sites.

"Ohio's laws simply are not adequate today," DeWine said.

Colorado's regulatory combination is currently the toughest in the nation, DeWine's staff found.

DeWine, a former U.S. senator, said changes need to come now, though he said he would leave to state lawmakers and Republican Gov. John Kasich the form any legal changes would take.

"If something happens six months from now, three months from now, and we look up and say, 'Gee, our penalties aren't adequate,' it's going to be too late," he said. "There's nothing that Mike DeWine as attorney general, or any other attorney general, will be able to do."

Kasich has said oil and natural gas development has the chance to bring an "economic resurgence" to the state but not at the cost of damaging the environment. He favors environmental protections and has said he'll push for tough regulations on drilling.

His spokesman, Rob Nichols, said Wednesday, "The administration is finalizing new, updated regulations for drilling that prioritize public health and safety and the environment, and which reflect the same kind of strong approach that the attorney general supports."

A spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a trade group that says it has more than 1,900 members involved in "the exploration, production and development of crude oil and natural gas resources" in the state, said he was unable to make an immediate comment.

The Ohio Chamber of Commerce's executive vice president, Linda Woggon, said talk over toughening the state's regulations is always of concern to business advocates, given its economic climate.

"We totally agree with the governor that we need to have adequate regulations in place concerning energy development, but at the same time we want to make sure we're not regulating so stringently that we do anything to jeopardize the full potential of the industry in the state and the jobs it could bring here," she said.

DeWine also is recommending that his office or another state agency be empowered to help landowners with complaints about lease agreements for drilling. Right now, he said, the state has no jurisdiction in such cases.

After a civil review was inconclusive, his office launched a criminal investigation in August into the origin of a "talking points" memo that surfaced in a Greene County driveway last year appearing to coach buyers of oil and gas drilling leases to use deceptive tactics on unsuspecting landowners.

DeWine grew up in the county.

Investigators fingerprinted a lease salesman, or landman, whom local environmentalists accused of owning the memo as well as questioning a local environmental activist about any role she may have had in faking the document. Neither the industry nor the opponents could be linked to the document, according to a prosecutor's summary DeWine made available Wednesday.

He said Ohio government needs to have a mechanism for addressing concern among average residents as oil and gas leases are hawked statewide.

"Most people who are selling their mineral rights, this is a once-in-a-lifetime transaction," DeWine said. "The people who are buying, the landmen who are coming in, do it every day. So there's a little inequity there about knowledge."

The focus of gas drilling companies has shifted in recent years to the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation underlying New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The fracking procedure the drillers use involves blasting chemical-laced water deep into the ground. Environmentalists and other critics say fracking could poison water supplies, but the natural gas industry says it's been used safely for decades.

DeWine said he ordered the staff review of existing Ohio laws as the industry began taking off in the state. He said he supports Kasich in his efforts to build the industry in the state.

"I'm for the fracking. I think it's an opportunity for Ohio to really get a lot of jobs," he said. "But we have to do it right. We have to really take a deep breath, do it right, make sure the public is protected, make sure our land is protected."

State Rep. Nicki Antonio, of Lakewood, is part of a group of legislative Democrats that has proposed limits on the oil and gas industry, including disclosure of chemicals. She reacted with a "Bravo!" to DeWine's proposals.

"We have way too much information and way too much past history in this state in this area not to do everything we can to protect people's health," she said.

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Online: http://www.ohioattorneygeneral.gov

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