Enter Utica: The Fracking Industry Really Loves Ohio; Here’s What’s on Tap for All of Us

I haven’t cut too many shared bylines, but fellow staff writer Sam Allard and I began a long-term reporting project earlier this year as we started looking into the oil and gas drilling industry’s moves into Ohio. For this story, the first of however many, we attended the Marcullus-Utica Midstream Conference in Pittsburgh, Pa., and spoke with several leading stakeholders around Northeast Ohio on both sides of the for/against fracking argument.

An excerpt:

The conventional wisdom on oil and gas drilling trajectories goes something like this: There’s a boom, and then there’s a bust. No one much considers the bust amid the boom, and right now business is booming in Ohio.

Sometime in 1859, a blacksmith named William Jeffrey plugged the loamy earth in Trumbull County with Ohio’s first oil well. There are now more than 200,000 oil and gas wells dotting the Buckeye State. Some are very small and localized operations. Others are behemoths in the most visual sense of the word, vomiting black gold and natural gas to export terminals along the Gulf, the Canadian provinces and locations more exotic.

Ohio’s modern oil and gas drilling kicked off with boom cycles in the 1960s, where the Trempealeau Dolomite “play” brought prospecting corporations out to Morrow County, that bucolic stretch of I-71 between Mansfield and Columbus. (In industry vernacular, a vast, unified stretch of resource-soaked bedrock is called a “play.”) Since then, the drilling has never really stopped. As the Trempealeau Dolomite began coughing up millions of barrels of oil, profiteers tapped the Rose Run reservoir in Ashland County and then set sights on southeast Ohio’s Trenton and Clinton Sandstone plays.

What we’re witnessing now is the ravaging of the Marcellus formation, which, when discovered and probed with 21st-century horizontal-drilling technology, shifted gravitational centers from Texas and the Dakotas toward bedrock sprawled across western Pennsylvania. The Utica, a deeper play with a greater concentration of rich, wet natural gas in eastern Ohio, is where the action’s been lately. Since 2000, the Ohio-Pennsylvania border and surrounding acreage has become the hottest drilling tip in the world.



The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga

Tanner Fischbach is a 19-year-old self-described “young Republican punk” from Berea, Ohio. When he announced his campaign for the highest public office in the most Democratic county in the state, many wondered what the hell he was thinking. I certainly did. So I met Fischbach and talked local politics, golf, the legitimacy of Punxsutawney Phil (that part was left on the cutting room floor) and the image issues of the Republican Party. The process of tracking him down and arranging interviews/photo shoots was an ordeal in itself, which worked into the story real well.

As liberal as I am, I found Fischbach to be a great interview (once we finally managed to meet). The story gets weird at times, and it’s one of my first features to boast a “twist” of any sort.

An excerpt:

Fischbach’s voice is rough when we talk to him in mid-December. He details a nasty bout of illness that has plagued him for a couple weeks now and apologizes for missing an interview. This would become a hallmark going forward – his penchant for missing interviews, that is, not necessarily the illness.

Eventually, he agrees to meet up at a McDonald’s on the southern hemline of Parma. He’s wearing the same purple shirt and tie combo that he wears in his Facebook profile photo for his campaign. It’s as if he wriggled right out of the computer already in character.

“You know what? I’m feeling much better now.” Fischbach says in between slurps of Coke. “Everyone’s texting me: ‘I’m sorry you’re sick, but stay away from me,’ you know? The only thing I’ve got now is a cough, so I promise I won’t get you sick or anything.” His voice carries the quick lilt of his native Boston.

He leans back in his chair and, with a wistful smile, begins explaining his intentions, delving into his time at Berea High School – ground zero of his political awakening, as it were. The whole district mirrors the deep blue hues of the county, so the slightly younger Fischbach saw ample opportunity to engage in healthy debate around the halls. This was back when Gov. John Kasich was championing Senate Bill 5 (Issue 2) across the state, prior to Fischbach’s 2013 graduation.

“When you have a young Republican punk coming through your hallways…” Fischbach starts off with a laugh. “I remember they put a couple posters in the school. You know, ‘No on Senate Bill 5’ and all that. I went up to the administration and, well, ‘Am I allowed to put up posters for Senate Bill 5? Is this how it’s gonna go?’ I think it was like an hour later that they took them down, because I would do it. I would do it!”

He pursues this tangent: “I would love to see a push for another Senate Bill 5 if we could for the whole state. But if we could push something countywide, that’d be great. And a lot of people probably aren’t going to vote for me for saying that.”



The Guitarist

Michael Bay plays guitar at the epicenter of the Cleveland blues world. As a mentor of sorts to the scene around him, he works both on- and off-stage to ensure a thriving music community around the region.

Last summer, I spent several weeks hanging out at his band’s weekly blues jams and talking about life over bowls of pho. The story that came out of all that shows a man who’s spent his life giving back to those around him. Bay is not only an unbelievably talented guitarist, but he’s also a empathetic, caring person – the kind of soul that makes this world spin ’round.

An excerpt:

There is a very old saying in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism that tangos off the tongue like so: “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.” Bodhisattvas have been riffing on that one for centuries.

In present-day Cleveland, Ohio, Michael Bay is working through a simple chord progression, methodically embracing the neck of his Fender Telecaster. Not so much the Buddhist he may outwardly appear, he is rather a guitarist. He is practicing. And as the shadows shrink back against the walls of his Tremont storefront on this quiet Tuesday morning, he will practice some more.

“I’ve been lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” he says, looking up from his instrument only to confirm how deeply he means this. The clean tone of his guitar contrasts against his raspy voice, and the words hang sweetly in the air. A cat named Goober perches on a nearby windowsill and surveys the neighborhood, occasionally casting a glance back at Bay, who is still flexing a bluesy lick.

The guitarist might be talking about how he met his girlfriend Denise Graham, about whom he speaks with Neruda-inspired love. He might be talking about how the guitar hanging on his wall right there—that Orville Les Paul he’s treasured for years—made its way back to him after being stolen one gray afternoon in Lakewood. He might yet be talking about a Wednesday night in 1994 that altered the musical landscape in this town forever.

Surely, though, luck has quite little to do with any of this. Bay’s been practicing since he was a young kid from the neighborhood whose name no one knew. And the practice is everything.

“It will become what it becomes if you let it,” he says, discussing the music he’s working on. Or is he talking about life? “Be in this moment now and listen—and let it evolve.”



Note: I’ll be featuring a longform story each day for the foreseeable future on this website (some will be pieces I’ve written, others will be stories I’ve read by others). “The Guitarist” is one of my favorites from my own archives over the past year. Tomorrow, my latest story, “The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga” will be published online and featured here.

The Advance Monster roosts in Cleveland

Save The Plain Dealer, a local campaign that’s been trying to highlight the inevitable “big changes” coming to our local daily, share this really great CJR story about how The Times-Picayune’s “big changes” really threw a wrench in New Orleans’ cherished journalism traditions.

It’s a story that’s been *out there* for years. In Cleveland, the whispers grew to a dull roar sometime last summer, shortly after the Times-Pic newsroom began collapsing in on itself.

I worked for Sun Newspapers, the weekly chain of community papers also owned  by Advance, from 2010 to late 2012. The company is intrinsically connected to the PD and to cleveland.com, the digital arm of the local op. Much of what Ryan Chittum discusses in his piece IS going to happen in Cleveland. But more still is already happening here. I titled this piece “The Advance Monster roosts in Cleveland” because its presence is always lurking just beneath the surface, just behind the walls in your home.

It’s a click-based strategy – the kind of thing the Old Guard considers Internet savvy. It’s a strategy that eats time and other abstract resources as if they were fat-laden prey in the woods. It’s a strategy that pushes mediocrity and fast-tracked news blurbs to the top, which inevitably reveals a cost-cutting method that will kick committed journalists to the curb. Many have left The Plain Dealer and Sun Newspapers already, as sort of preemptive nosedive from the tower. John Soeder’s one of the few ex-PDers whose gone on record as describing his exodus. I’m here doing the same. And there are others – former coworkers, former columnists, former illustrators, etc. etc.

I referenced Dean Starkman’s work earlier on this blog and pointed to his hamster wheel analogy. The free model of online journalism that Advance espouses with so much secretive absurdity is one that inevitably incentivizes a quantity-over-quality ideology. Other media scholars jumped on his article and completely missed his argument. The key word is “incentivize.” On the ground and in action, this process accomplishes that unfortunate end via quotas, a hunger for numbers and a strong emphasis on news polls and events promotion. Hardly “journalism” on any level.

Which is all to say that my use of the word “unfortunate” is apt. The Advance Monster encourages laziness – as long as the numbers and reports and data GROW month over month. A picture of a cute puppy by the lake is treated equally in the system alongside an in-depth analysis of the mayor’s budget proposal. And the picture of a cute puppy will likely lend itself to a fair bit of local “virality,” to turn a phrase, and, ultimately, satisfy the Advance Monster to a greater degree.

Fuck “going viral.”

That’s a minor mantra in my world. Because mediocrity has a tendency to rise to the top, it seems worthwhile to avoid “the top.”

So the Save the Plain Dealer campaign is sharing the news of the impending “big changes” and its members are right to do so. But don’t kid yourself. The Monster is already here.