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OOGA Members Urged to Fight for Public Support

When the Ohio Oil and Gas Association (OOGA) hosted thousands of its members at a three day winter meeting in Columbus last week, a large part of the discussion revolved around resistance the industry is facing in places across the country and what can be done to stop it from gripping the Buckeye State.

Anti-hydraulic fracturing (fracking) campaigns that continue to crop up in Colorado, California, New York, Michigan and in localities across Ohio have industry forces aligning in the state to offset the campaigns of protesters opposed to horizontal drilling, according to OOGA officials and the meeting's presenters.

"As we're watching this play progress, you see some of the oddest characters. I've run into a clown, a wizard, Uncle Sam; I've run into a skelton," said Shawn Bennett, Ohio director for the national industry outreach group Energy In Depth. "These are the sort of fun protesters that we can all poke fun at because they are characters vehemently opposed to all fossil fuels and right now the hot topic is oil and gas development.

"But you think to yourself that there's no way these folks can gain any traction because what they're learning and what they're spouting is untruthful," he added. "But the reality is: perception is reality and these folks are gaining traction in communities across the United States."

Bennett's presentation before OOGA's members last week touched on a topic that appears to be sweeping Appalachia. Industry stakeholders, he said, will continue to face the message of critics and be forced to confront the sustained challenge of informing the public and keeping control of the conversation. Last week's meeting alone saw members filing into ballrooms at a local hotel to hear business sessions titled "How to be an Oil Champion," "Crisis Management in the 21st Century" and "Pamphlets and Protest -- The Extremist Message."

Nearby, in Pennsylvania, small conferences have been dedicated entirely to similar topics (see Shale Daily, Feb. 10).

In Ohio, a state where commercial oil production first began in 1860, leaders from three groups say they are having more success in taking control of the public debate than their counterparts in other states. The public relations wing of OOGA, Energy In Depth Ohio and the industry-funded Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program all plan to step up their efforts as groups from other states ask for their advice in fighting against opposition groups that are achieving incremental success.

"There are so many of us out there working on a coordinated basis to share what we see and what we hear in order to address this problem," said Mike Chadsey, OOGA's public relations director. "The idea is that this industry in Ohio should speak with one voice on all these issues and that's very important."

Chadsey said an aggressive social media campaign, attending public meetings about oil and gas development across the state and answering the concerns of community leaders are all pieces of a much larger ongoing battle to gain public support for the industry's work.

"We in Ohio, we're riding high. We have the proper rules and regulations in place, everybody knows what's happening," Bennett said. "But the problem is those folks who don't understand what's going on could have a serious detrimental impact on the industry as a whole."

Although Appalachia has remained relatively supportive of the oil and gas industry, both Bennett and Chadsey said they have their eyes fixed on other parts of the country and the failures of other states to adequately head-off opposition. They cited a ballot initiative under consideration in Colorado that would give all local governments in the state control over oil and gas development (see Shale Daily, Feb. 27). The situation in Colorado, which went to anti-fracking campaigns in a few towns to a statewide effort points up the importance of their work. The two urged OOGA members to engage in a dialogue with the public in communities across the state about their industry.

A number of Colorado cities, including Broomfield, Boulder, Fort Collins and Lafayette, have banned fracking (see Shale Daily, March 4; Nov. 14, 2013). In California, city officials in Los Angeles are considering a similar measure (see Shale Daily, March 6), while in Michigan organizers have postponed a ballot initiative to ban fracking across the state (see Shale Daily, Aug. 6, 2013).

"If we're not at those meetings and we're not out there every day to say something back, we could end up like L.A., we could end up with what Colorado is going to end up going through, or we could end up like Michigan and that could ultimately lead to being like New York, and nobody wants that," Bennett said.

Industry-aligned groups have their work cut out for them in Ohio too. An opposition group in Youngstown has vowed to gather signatures for a third ballot initiative to ban fracking in the city after voters rejected two attempts last year (see Shale Daily, Dec. 31, 2013). In the southwest part of the state, voters in Athens will decide on a fracking ban in November, while Bowling Green, Mansfield, Broadview Heights, Cincinnati and other Ohio municipalities have either considered or passed similar measures.

"The opposition continues to push these efforts because they think they're getting a foothold and it's our job to make sure they don't," Chadsey told OOGA members. "If you put something on the ballot once, you're a concerned citizen. If you put it on the ballot twice you look like an activist, and if you put it on a third time, then you just look out of touch. That's the message we're talking about, these people are out of town and they're out of touch. So that's why we’re asking that if you see something, say something because we have to be there to address any and all concerns"

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