What happens when the Chamber of Commerce, labor leaders, and government officials, most of whom live outside the city, are pitted against a small yet influential group of community and university activists? That's what's going on right now in a debate over a ballot initiative that would prevent gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing — fracking — in Youngstown, Ohio. The proposed ordinance, Community Bill of Rights (CBR), is modeled on similar anti-drilling legislation in other Ohio communities that would largely block drilling, as well as shale gas extraction and injection wells, especially in urban areas.
This is the third attempt during the last two years to pass such legislation in Youngstown, and the vote has become closer each time. In the most recent try, 45 per cent supported the ordinance and 55 per cent opposed it. Supporters hope to shift the balance this time.
The underlying legal issue is whether local community restrictions can preempt Ohio’s legal framework for gas and oil drilling. Ohio is a home rule state where municipalities have authority "to exercise all powers of local self-government and to adopt and enforce within their limits such local police, sanitary and other similar regulations, as are not in conflict with general laws”. As proponents of the Youngstown ordinance point out, there is no exception in the Constitution for the oil and gas industry.
The Constitution would seem to give Youngstown the right to regulate fracking on the local level, but in 2004, the Ohio legislature passed a bill HB 278 explicitly denying that right. The bill was largely written by the oil and gas industry, which recruited support for it by flooding both Republicans and Democrats with campaign contributions, according to former Ohio Attorney General Marc Dann. This happened before the industry expanded drilling in the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions of Eastern Ohio, suggesting that the industry knew it would encounter local resistance.
Resistance to fracking reflects concerns about the well-documented relationship between fracking and earthquakes, both nationally and in Youngstown, and related health concerns. But what makes the Youngstown fight so remarkable is the setting: a community with a long history of economic struggle.
Youngstown has been the poster child for deindustrialization and disinvestment since 1977. The city has lost over 30 per cent of its population in the last quarter century, and it has demolished over 3000 properties in the last five years. The average sale price for a home is $21,327. Other challenges include a median household income of $24,880 and a 36 per cent poverty rate. It’s also home to several prisons; one of every 20 residents is a prisoner. Alan Mallach, an urbanist and senior fellow of the National Housing Institute, notes that economic development efforts have not sufficiently addressed these problems, pointing out that “… factories or warehouses that the city has attracted usually move to the nearby suburbs, and four out of five jobs in the city are filled by people who commute from out of town.”
Those opposing the Community Bill of Rights capitalize on these difficulties. They have spent large sums to set up phone banks in black urban churches, promoting the idea that fracking will create jobs. Yet there is very little evidence that African Americans have benefited from the fracking industry, except as precarious laborers.
Many of those who are pushing for fracking don’t live in the city, and won’t have to live with its problems. These include Chamber members, labor unionists (especially the skilled trades), and city government employees who are exempted from local city residency requirements – a policy that contributed to the flight of middle-class white residents and the hollowing out of the city.
The difference between the influence of these non-residents and the less well-financed voices of those who live in the city has not been lost on Community Bill of Rights supporters. CBR leaders Ray and Susie Beiersdorfer, city residents and Youngstown State University geologists, recognize that the blitz of advertising by the oil and natural gas industry, promising future jobs, appeals to the largely working-class, mostly black residents who are most affected by the city’s high levels of poverty and unemployment. But as a group of YSU academics noted in a letter to a Youngstown newspaper, “The same can be said for the manufacturing of cigarettes, alcohol, drones, high-range missiles, and nuclear warheads.”
Youngstown, of course, is especially susceptible to the promise of jobs, even at the expense of the environment and health, and that has led some on the political left to either stay out of the fight or to oppose the CBR. Younger, environmentally-conscious city residents, including proponents of urban farming and sustainability, support the CBR. Other community groups think that the ban is too localized, and want to work on statewide fights. They argue that, because of the 2004 legislation, the local CBR is unenforceable and largely symbolic. Many local Democratic Party leaders also are visibly and vocally opposing the CBR. Democratic voters see their local leadership standing arm and arm with the many of same people who have attempted to undermine unionism and voting rights in Ohio.
The proponents of the ban have been particularly troubled by the role of the city’s largest institution, Youngstown State University, and the resources it has accepted from the oil and gas industry. The impact of the university’s support of fracking has been powerful. YSU has downsized or abolished Humanities and Arts programs, while expanding its STEM (science, tech, engineering and math) college and trumpeting its training programs for promised oil and gas industry jobs that have yet to materialize in any significant degree. Some educators, like Deborah Mower, have argued that this should not be the role of the University: “Instead of merely responding to the industry need and ignoring the problems of fracking that have plagued the industry for decades, the university could create an epicenter for redressing their problems…. Perhaps lost in this discussion is the nature of education.”
CBR proponents agree with that sentiment, but they might also point out that what is really at stake is, as the organizers of an upcoming international conference phrase it, the “right to the city” versus the influence of non-residents (disclosure: I'll be speaking in May on so-called "smart shrinkage" at The Right to the City in an Era of Austerity (1973-2014) .
The oil and gas industry has spent over $100,000 to defeat the CBR, and proponents have been sued to keep it off the ballot. Meanwhile, the Beiersdofers and other CBR organizers increasingly believe that public health, science and the ballot box are being overpowered by money. But they won’t let that happen in Youngstown without a fight.
John Russo is a visiting research fellow at the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech, and former co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies / professor (emeritus) in the Williamson College of Business Administration at Youngstown State University. He is a board member of the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative (MVOC) (Youngstown-Warren), and the co-author, with Sherry Linkon, of Steeltown U.S.A.: Work and Memory in Youngstown.
Flickr photo by Don O'Brien, Red, White and Blue: In Ohio, 100-barrel tanks used to contain crude oil from gas wells.