Fossil Fuel Misinformation Helps Quash Community Effort to Ban Fracking in Youngstown, Ohio

Lambert here: In Ohio, initiatives can now be removed from the ballot, either by local boards of elections or the Secretary of State, even if they gather the required number of signatures. Fighting resource-extraction projects like fracking out in the colonies through the permitting and regulatory process is already difficult, and democracy-stifling laws like this just make matters worse (although easier for the comprador class in local power structures). This is exceptionally nasty, and the fossil fuel industry used their new tool to good advantage.

By Simon Davis-Cohen, editor of the Ear to the Ground newsletter, an exclusive “civic intelligence” service that mines local newspapers and state legislatures from across the country. Originally published at DesmogBlog.

For the first time since 2013, a group of activists in Youngstown, Ohio, has been told it cannot place an anti-fracking initiative on local ballots, due in part to a misinformation campaign from the fossil fuel industry.

On October 6, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that two proposed ballot initiatives — one to outlaw fracking and fracking waste injections and another to regulate political campaign contributions within city limits — would not be up for a vote this November. In previous years, voters weighed in on similar initiatives, which were ultimately defeated.

The recent ruling came despite both initiatives receiving the required number of signatures to get on the ballot.

“We’ve become experts at collecting signatures!” said Susie Beiersdorfer of the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee.

The initiatives were in large part a response to earthquakes caused by fracking waste injections, illegal dumping of fracking waste in a local river, and the expansion of fracking in this area of eastern Ohio.

Anti-Fracking Initiatives in Youngstown

Starting in 2013, the Youngstown Community Bill of Rights Committee has successfully placed a “Community Bills of Rights” to outlaw fracking and fracking waste injections on six separate ballots.

Each election, the group has been vastly outspent and its initiatives voted down. But it has made gains. In November 2016, its community bill of rights initiative lost by only 2,279 votes.

Citizens are realizing that our government system is fixed,” Beiersdorfer told DeSmog.

In response to being vastly outspent on past campaigns, this year the group also proposed a second initiative, the “People’s Bill of Rights for Fair Elections and Access to Local Government.” In addition to challenging corporations’ protections under the U.S. Constitution, the bill would ban outside private interests from contributing to local campaigns and limit campaign contributions to $100 for local elections.

Big Oil and Gas Come to Town

Soon after the Community Bill of Rights Committee gathered enough signatures for both initiatives to head to vote, the oil and gas industry launched a unique media campaign against not only the initiatives but the local ballot initiative process itself. The talking point: Local ballot measures cost taxpayers too much money and should be avoided.

Earlier this year the pro-fossil fuel outreach website Energy In Depth filed a freedom of information request from the City of Youngstown for costs associated with the local ballot initiative process. (In 2011 DeSmog exposed Energy In Depth, which billed itself as the product of small, independent oil and gas producers, as being funded by some of the biggest fossil fuel companies on the planet, including BP, Shell, Chevron, and XTO Energy/ExxonMobil.)

Energy In Depth reported that the city had spent $185,000 on the previous six anti-fracking ballot measures.

However, a DeSmog analysis of the same records shows that this figure is misleading and inaccurate. The $185,000 figure represents the total cost of six primary and general elections between 2013 and 2016, which included much more than just the anti-fracking initiatives.

According to the fiscal officer of the Mahoning County Board of Elections, which bills the City of Youngstown for election costs, there were five other charter amendments, 15 liquor options, and one county health board question that contributed to the city’s election invoice. Additionally, the figure touted by Energy In Depth includes paying poll workers in half of those elections, a regular cost incurred whether or not ballot measures were up for vote.

Despite this inaccuracy, Energy In Depth’s talking point and the $185,000 figure were quickly picked up by local outlets, fossil fuel–friendly publications and business journals. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce even compared the $185,000 to the amount of money that was spent managing the months-long anti-Dakota Access camps at Standing Rock (roughly $38 million) in a post called “The High Cost of Fracking Protesters.”

Seismic Shifts in Ohio Election Law

The basic insinuation — that elections are not a good use of public funds — filled airwaves in the midst of a critical legal battle over whether Youngstown residents would be allowed to vote on the two ballot initiatives.

Organizers with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, who offered free legal services to the Youngstown petitioners, say they have seen the talking point about the cost of the local ballot process crop up elsewhere, including in Peters and Ferguson townships in Pennsylvania and in Spokane, Washington.

As in previous years, challenges to keep Youngstown’s community bill of rights initiatives off the ballot were filed. This year, however, the county board of elections had a new legislative tool, added to a state foreclosure law (HB463) in December 2016. The amendment gives local boards of elections unprecedented power to remove initiatives from the ballot.

As the Ohio Legislative Services Commission wrote, the new law “requires a board of elections or the Secretary of State to invalidate a local initiative petition if the board or Secretary determines that the petition or any portion of it does not fall within the scope of the local government’s constitutional authority to enact.”

Before HB463 and since 2015, Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, non-elected local boards of elections, and the Ohio Supreme Court have struck a total of 10 proposed county charters from Ohio ballots in five counties. Municipal ballot measures, however, were largely protected.

Until now. Armed with its new powers from HB463, the local board of elections removed Youngstown’s two initiatives from November’s ballot.

Energy In Depth celebrated.

The petitioners appealed, unsuccessfully, to the Ohio Supreme Court.

Beiersdorfer quoted the popular saying: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win. Bring it on!” she says. “We don’t lose until we quit!”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.

17 comments

    1. ambrit

      Nah. The industry itself isn’t as important as the class of people who “run” these industries.
      What the oligarch class should really worry about is the time when some of the members of the ‘deplorables’ figure it out and begin to take ‘direct action.’

      1. joecostello

        Yes well dont forget the culpability of the American people, who will be happy if they can drive their cars to democracy’s funeral pyre.

        1. jrs

          oh please, however the American people are they so clearly don’t run the government and the society that it hardly matters … sheesh you think articles like this would just offer ever more proof as if any was needed. Yea, yea, you think the average person can take all the power they don’t have political, in their workplace, and in their lives and somehow overcome that with purchasing decisions which have to take place in that very society.

          (and fracking isn’t even for oil so not directly relevant here anyway … )

      2. joecostello

        The deplorables want their cars just as much the limousine liberals, the key to a new politics is understanding the very many things that unite Americans and can no longer continue.

      3. jrs

        if voting changed anything they’d make it illegal – oh that sounds exactly like what they are doing, making it illegal.

      4. JohnR

        I suspect you’re looking to the wrong source for aid. The “deplorables” seem to be more focused on fighting for their right not to be governed by Liberals. Being ruled by the people who feel that the French aristocracy had the right idea in the 13th century, seems to suit them just fine. But perhaps that tune will change in time.

  1. Louis Fyne

    All forms of energy production, even “green”, are bad in some way.

    For natural gas, from purely a utilitarian thermodynamics POV, it’s dumb to burn natural gas to produce electricity—versus using it to burn as heating/mobile fuel. This is before considering all the above pollution issues and methane and the opportunity costs of using a different fuel source (wind or the dreaded, impossible-to-have-a-rational-discussion-about, N-word, nuclear).

    Electricity turbine generators are not as efficient as the newest home furnaces/water heaters. 60% efficiency is gas turbines is considered awesome, new home furnaces easily top 95%.

    Then throw in transmission losses from sending electricity across dozens or hundreds of miles.

    For the medium term, natural gas, by necessity of all the energy we consume, has a place. Just the market is so distorted that even “green activists” are cheering its use for electricity generation without taking into the total life cycle of electric natural gas generation.

  2. Louis Fyne

    All forms of energy production, even “green”, are bad in some way.

    For natural gas, from purely a utilitarian thermodynamics POV, it’s dumb to burn natural gas to produce electricity—versus using nat gas to burn as heating or a mobile fuel (ships, cars). then gets even dumber once you add in the externalities from pollution issues (like above) and methane and the opportunity costs of using a different fuel source (wind or the dreaded, impossible-to-have-a-rational-discussion-about, N-word, nuclear).

    Electricity turbine generators are not as efficient as the newest home furnaces/water heaters. 60% efficiency in gas turbines is considered awesome, new home furnaces easily top 95%. Then throw in transmission losses from sending electricity across dozens or hundreds of miles.

    Each gram of CO2 emitted by a natural gas furnace does far more useful work than a gram emitted by a nat gas electricity plant.

    For the medium term, natural gas, by necessity of all the energy we consume, has a place. Just the market is so distorted that even “green activists” are blindly cheering its use for electricity generation without taking into the total life cycle of electric natural gas generation.

    ymmv.

    1. Synoia

      Electricity turbine generators are not as efficient as the newest home furnaces/water heaters. 60% efficiency in gas turbines is considered awesome, new home furnaces easily top 95%. Then throw in transmission losses from sending electricity across dozens or hundreds of miles.

      Distribution losses are not so large. Heat losses at the Generator are the largest source of loss, and are impossible to fix,

      Furnaces can achieve high efficiencies because their purpose is to radiate heat. Better to insulate the building, and eliminate furnaces.

      60% efficiency in gas turbines is considered awesome,

      That would be true but is also impossible. 33 to 34% is about the best we can do.

      Wind is good because we don’t care about losses if the turbine can pay for itself, because we don’t buy wind.

    2. Rod

      I agree–looking forward to ‘our transition phase’ that NG will be so much better used in homes and–vehicles that are still problematic as EVs–the trucks hauling tools and materials and crews to work sites; long haul buses; farm equipment; construction equipment; etc..
      It’s the stuff you have to have a plan for in order to make said transition efficient and expedient.

      –have to have a plan for –being the critical thing

  3. PKMKII

    As the Ohio Legislative Services Commission wrote, the new law “requires a board of elections or the Secretary of State to invalidate a local initiative petition if the board or Secretary determines that the petition or any portion of it does not fall within the scope of the local government’s constitutional authority to enact.”

    FFS it’s not the job of the BoE or Secretary of State to determine constitutionality! That’s what we have courts for, if someone wants to challenge the constitutionality of a law, because that ensures that due process is considered for it. These measures give authoritarian, all powerful vetoes with zero recourse to elected officials who don’t even need to prove that the measure is unconstitutional.

  4. Jer Bear

    Youngstowners voted for Jim Traficant for President … while he was in federal prison in PA. They love fracking and buy earthquake riders for their home insurance.

  5. whiteylockmandoubled

    frustrating post. leads with the BoE decision, then spends most of its words on the$185,000 talking point, telling us at the very end that there’s a state law in play.

    What are the state laws that the initiative supposedly violates? What powers do municipalities have on these questions? This is pre-emption with a twist — the municipal government can’t do it, ergo you can’t vote on it.

    For people fighting in the rest of Ohio and other states, the substance actually matters. Yes, it’s bad that they get away with their stupid communications about the cost of elections, but that’s not the rationale that the Board gave for striking the initiatives from the ballot, which is an even bigger danger than crude p.r.

    More please.

  6. David Peterson

    When will every day Americans begin to realize that they hold all of the power? How many corporations can withstand a week of boycott let alone a month? We can target and cripple any corporation doing business here by mass organized and sustained boycotts.

    Humble a few excessively greedy corporations for training, then turn the power on against the likes of the Koch businesses, and banks that support fracking, and colleges that serve only their corporate overlords. “Dorothy, you’ve been in Kansas all along. You never left us”.
    We’ve always had the power. In this consumer economy- the consumer is god!

Comments are closed.