In Ohio, a Good Look at Oil and Gas Influence

After strong work from Dispatch, Plain Dealer notes lawmaker’s sudden fundraising success

OHIO — Money has long been a lubricant that keeps politicians running. So it is only natural that this state’s budding oil and gas industry has emerged as a political powerhouse and provider of key campaign contributions.

Ohio media outlets have done a solid job covering the potential benefits and pitfalls of drilling into the state’s abundance of shale deposits in search of energy—including reporting on environmental worries that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” triggered a series of earthquakes near Youngstown in northeastern Ohio late last year. For example, here’s a good piece from last month by Spencer Hunt of The Columbus Dispatch about new state rules designed to prevent more of those earthquakes. And an article in Thursday’s Dispatch outlined new guidelines for companies that want to drill beneath state parks.

Hunt and the Dispatch also delivered a three-day series last September, with the final installment tracking oil and gas companies’ growing political clout. (That piece drew on insights and data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, two of the resources cited in Mary Winter’s recent piece on campaign-finance reporting here at CJR.)

Now, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland has advanced this story with some drilling of its own, and a peek into the deep pockets of five major oil and gas industry PACs. In an article that appeared last weekend, Aaron Marshall of the PD’s Columbus Statehouse bureau reported that those PACs have doled out nearly $600,000 in campaign contributions to state lawmakers since 2010, at a time when legislators were considering bills to regulate the business. About $100,000 of that came from Chesapeake Energy, which controls the rights to 1.4 million acres in the eastern part of the state and has been the first to get its wells up and running.

There is no shortage of examples to illustrate how the energy industry maintains its role as a key player on the national scene. And already, the debate over gas prices, energy policy, and the political sway of oil and gas companies is a key part of the 2012 campaign.

Against that backdrop, the PD’s story is a good explainer on how the industry wields its influence, to the benefit of some lawmakers, in a particular state. And it’s clear the newspaper gave Marshall time and space—often at a premium in the contemporary era of we-were-the-first journalism—to develop the piece.

The most striking material in Marshall’s story surrounds Rep. David Hall, a Republican from Holmes County. According to Marshall, Hall has historically been a modest fundraiser, never raising more than $45,000 in a particular six-month period.

But in the final six months of 2011, a year in which Hall did not face an election, his fundraising has exploded, as he raised more than $128,000, with most of the money connected to Ohio’s oil and gas industry, including about $18,000 from Chesapeake’s PAC or its lobbyists. In all, 13 of 15 donations to Hall of $2,000 or more during that period came from Ohio’s oil and gas lobby.

The reason for this sudden prowess? Coincidentally or not, Hall chairs the committee that acts on legislation for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which regulates oil and gas drilling.

And while Hall wouldn’t talk to the Plain Dealer, Republican House Speaker William G. Batchelder did:

While Hall declined to be interviewed for this story, Batchelder said the oil and gas lobby is merely supporting those who support them. Companies new to Ohio merely “want to get known,” and giving campaign contributions helps them get face time at fundraisers with lawmakers, Batchelder said.

“We have a number of people who are knowledgeable about the oil industry, people who want to see that industry grow and create jobs and so forth, and sometimes they are very articulate about that,” Batchelder said. “The oil interests want to encourage them and want to be in the legislature.”

Typically, a reporter might contact a citizen’s activist group, like Ohio Citizen Action, for insight on the influence of lobbyists. But in this case Marshall simply cited the public rebuke issued by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, also a Republican. GOP lawmakers angered Kasich when they rejected his call for a major hike in oil and gas taxes. The governor accused lawmakers of being influenced by “special interests,” a charge they denied.

This long story ended with a show-you-the-money list of total contributions from Chesapeake to members of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

It all added up to a strong look at a story that will continue to gain momentum and attention. Marshall’s piece points to the need for reporters to continue to pay close attention to the possibility of pay-for-play at the Statehouse—and it’s a useful example to reporters covering the money-in-politics story at every level of government.

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T.C. Brown covered government and politics in the Ohio Statehouse Bureau for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland for more than 17 years, and he has also written for other local, state and national publications. Brown is a founding partner in Webface, a social media communication company.