The Ohio Attorney General’s Office is investigating the origins of public comments sent to state regulators urging fracking in state parks — letters whose purported authors, including some from the Dayton region, say they didn’t write or send.
The issue was originally revealed by Cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, which found dozens of Ohioans who say their names were used without permission in a flood of public comments urging the newly formed Oil and Gas Land Management Commission to allow fracking for oil and natural gas in Salt Fork and other state parks and protected lands.
The Dayton Daily News reached out to people from the Miami Valley whose names, addresses and phone numbers appear in comments to the commission in support of fracking in state parks.
Of 13 area residents in the 937 area code reached by the Dayton Daily News, 10 had no idea why they’re named as writing a letter of support. Many said they oppose the idea. Three others confirmed they did write a letter supporting fracking.
According to the Cleveland.com report, thousands of pro-fracking comments barraged the inbox of the commission, which will decide in the coming months whether to free mineral rights under state lands for leasing and bidding from oil and gas drillers. One set of those form letters traces back to an entity that advocates for the natural gas industry.
Some of the people contacted by the Dayton Daily News did not know what fracking is and were upset after they found out. Fracking is the process of freeing methane from shale thousands of feet underground using water, sand and chemicals at high pressure, technically known as hydraulic fracturing.
The nonprofit Consumer Energy Alliance of Houston, Texas, has previously been accused of using citizens’ names on government petitions and public comments without their permission in Wisconsin in 2014, in Ohio in 2016, and in South Carolina in 2018, according to Cleveland.com.
The alliance denied any wrongdoing, saying that it uses a digital trail to confirm that the names submitted for the form letters through an online portal are authentic.
The Oil and Gas Land Management Commission is scheduled to meet Monday at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources headquarters in Columbus. Andy Chow, ODNR spokesman, said the commission takes these concerns seriously. However, there was no comment on this matter as the commission won’t be meeting in public session until Monday.
“Anyone who believes a comment was submitted without their knowledge or permission should alert the commission immediately,” Chow said. “If someone confirms that they did not submit a letter that is on the public record, the commission will remove that public comment.”
Chow said, “furthermore, if anyone believes they are the victim of identity theft or fraud they are encouraged to reach out to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. The commission has also forwarded the complaints it has received to the Attorney General’s Office.”
He said public comments submitted to the commission are posted on the commission’s webpage. Anyone with concerns can search for their name in the posted comments. Chow said if anyone has any additional questions they can contact the Commission Clerk, email@example.com.
He said the commission is currently working on creating a public comments portal where people can directly submit their comments to the website with additional authentication tools.
Chow said any investigation will fall under the jurisdiction of the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the commission has forwarded every concern it has received to the Attorney General’s office. He said the commission has also acted to remove people’s names from the public comments once directly requested by those individuals.
Dominic Binkley, deputy press secretary for Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, said, “The attorney general takes these allegations seriously and has assigned investigative staff to look into the matter.”
The president of Consumer Energy Alliance, David Holt, in response to Yost’s investigation announcement, said, “CEA is in active communication with the Ohio Attorney General’s office and other relevant agencies and appreciates their prompt review of these allegations. Since sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants, CEA will keep working with any and all relevant Ohio authorities to bring full clarity to the situation, since the allegations are provably not true.”
Holt said, “the public comment process is an essential part of participatory democracy and a complete airing of the facts in this situation and others like it is merited.”
In a letter dated Sept. 11 to Yost, Holt offered CEA’s cooperation and information on the matter.
In the letter, Holt disputes any reporting that suggests CEA intentionally submitted comments to the commission without the knowledge of the people named.
“The comments submitted by CEA were gathered by a digital advocacy contractor hired by CEA and vetted via a digital chain of custody that traces the multiple points where a user must input an email address, telephone number, physical address and affirmatively click on links before a form letter is generated in the name self-input by the user,” the letter says. “These digital signers of these letters are then vetted through human review to ensure the identifying data matches location, phone number, IP address or MAC address.”
Holt wrote that CEA was cleared of any wrongdoing in the previous instances referenced by Cleveland.com, and suggested activist groups and members of the media colluded to make CEA look bad and delay the process.
When contacted Thursday by the Dayton Daily News about comments and allegations referenced in Holt’s letter to Yost, Christopher Quinn, Cleveland.com editor and vice president of content, said, “We stand by our story.”
Bryson Hull, vice president, strategic/crisis communication for HBW Resources who represents CEA, declined to comment further on Thursday when asked by the Dayton Daily News for a copy of the digital chain of custody referenced in the letter.
The advocacy group Save Our Parks released a statement Thursday urging the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission to delay any decision on fracking until the investigation is resolved.
“It’s critical that the public commenting process concerning fracking be fair and legitimate,” said Randi Pokladnik, Save Our Parks steering committee member. “Anything less makes a mockery of our participatory democracy.”
‘I did not send any letter’
Linda Hartsock of Franklin is one of the people listed with the state as sending one of the form letters supporting fracking. But she said she never sent a letter to anyone. Hartsock said she was surprised and bothered.
“I did not send any letter. I don’t like it and I don’t know anything about it.” She said “I haven’t a clue how this happened.”
Joan Van Winkle of Springboro also said she never sent a letter in support of fracking because she is against oil and gas exploration in state parks.
Frank Paschal of New Carlisle said he was confused how one of the support letters was sent in his name. He asked the reporter, “how did it get on there, you know?”
Jean Hendrickson of Lewisburg also did not send a support letter. She said she had never heard of the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission and wondered how her name was used to send this letter.
Tipp City resident Katharina Wolf said, “I’m very much against fracking and this is something I would never do.”
“I’m very upset about this and who knows what else they might have done using my name,” Wolf said. “This is an intrusion into my right to privacy and I don’t like my name being used this way. It’s terrible.”