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Youngstown’s Third Anti-Fracking Referendum a ‘Jobs Killer,’ City Officials Warn

Calling a grassroots effort to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) within the city of Youngstown, OH, for the third time in 18 months a "jobs killer" affecting the whole region, officials on Thursday implored the public to again vote against the measure when they head to the polls next month.

In December, the Youngstown Ohio Community Bill of Rights Committee said it would gather the necessary signatures for a ballot referendum that would amend the city's charter to ban fracking and related activities (see Shale Daily, Dec. 31, 2013). Youngstown voters have rejected the measure twice before, once by a margin of 55% to 45% in November 2013 and again last may by a margin of 57% to 43% (see Shale Daily, Nov. 6, 2013; May 9, 2013).

"The proposed amendment in each of its attempts so far is a very broad amendment, not only does it go beyond the issue of fracking, it goes into efforts to kill potential job creation efforts here in the city of Youngstown," said Democratic Mayor John McNally, who took office in January. "I am not naive enough to think that this particular charter amendment will affect only the city of Youngstown; it will affect the three-county region here in Ohio and counties in Western Pennsylvania, this is not just a Youngstown issue."

Oil and gas companies have expressed little interest in Youngstown, choosing instead to develop acreage on the rural lands in townships surrounding it. Meanwhile, Northeast Ohio has not seen the kind of Utica Shale development that the southeast part of the state has (see Shale Daily, Nov. 19, 2013). But Youngstown's location and industrial base have attracted a suite of manufacturers serving operators in the Utica and Marcellus shale formations, helping to lift the city from the unemployment and urban poverty that for years have characterized it.

"Obviously, having such a diverse group of people, who have very odd political views when it comes to anything else but this issue, tells you how important this issue is to the community," said David Betras, chairman of the Mahoning County Democratic Party. "I appreciate the frustration of those against the fracking industry, but their fight is with the state of Ohio and how it has taken this issue away from local communities. Until that is changed, I am tired of bringing national figures here to raise money for this city."

The Bill of Rights is being spearheaded by FrackFree Mahoning Valley -- a loosely knit group opposed to fracking in Ohio and across the country. The group has criticized the industry, helping to stage rallies, organize protests and holding public forums to discuss the dangers of the industry's presence in the state. They have cited birth defects, air pollution, jeopardized public water supplies and a host of other claims as justification for a ban on fracking.

Officials at Thursday's event said both the city and county have already spent more than $50,000 in administrative costs related to the group's referendum. As currently written, the charter amendment includes an outright ban on fracking, language to enforce any activity that violates it or natural resources and also includes a stipulation that imposes liabilities on operations in neighboring communities.

Although it would be largely unenforceable as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has the "sole and exclusive" authority to regulate oil and gas development in the state, those opposed to the initiative worry that it could create legal challenges for the city to deal with in addition to discouraging further investment from the industry.

Major equipment suppliers such as Vallourec Star, Exterran, Valerus and Industrial Piping Specialists have all recently opened or expanded existing facilities in Youngstown to meet growing demand from the gas fields of Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Butch Taylor, manager of the local plumbers and pipefitters union, said his organization has already received tens of thousands of dollars in grants to train young people to work in the industry, while more contractors are coming to the area to do work on pipelines and processing facilities. He said a ban on fracking could deter all that.

The effort in Youngstown is part of larger one under way across the country to limit oil and gas development. Several other cities in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have either passed or attempted to pass similar measures. In Colorado, Texas, New York, California and Michigan various proposals are being floated to do the same (see Shale Daily, March 12; March 6; Feb. 20; Aug. 6, 2013).

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