May 18, 2011- COLUMBUS — After several years of lobbying, Ohio’s oil and gas industry is poised to win permission to drill on state lands but environmentalists are sounding the alarm that it risks spills, fires and pollution in some of the state’s prettiest natural settings.
Tom Stewart of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association said drilling on state lands could create jobs, tap local sources of energy and generate cash to help maintain state parks, but it’s uncertain how much of an upside Ohio could experience.
“The only way to find that out is to drill some wells,” Stewart said.
Lawmakers are considering three bills that would allow drilling for oil and natural gas on state-owned lands:
- The budget bill would allow drilling on Ohio’s 115,300 acres of state parks.
- House Bill 133 would permit drilling on all state-owned lands, including acres held by state universities and colleges.
- Senate Bill 108 also would allow drilling on state-owned lands.
It is unclear how much land is under state ownership, but the state Department of Natural Resources alone owns roughly 600,000 acres. Eastern Ohio has the best potential for natural gas and oil drilling, Stewart said.
Stewart said Michigan and Pennsylvania have had state land drilling programs for many years and have recently signed multimillion dollar leases.
Nationally, the Obama administration is asking Congress to shorten the time energy companies get to start drilling on public lands they lease, as part of the government’s strategy to boost oil and gas production.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar pushed a series of measures Tuesday in testimony before a Senate panel considering drilling legislation. The proposals expanded on plans announced by President Barack Obama over the weekend to speed up drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, on Alaska’s North Slope and off the Atlantic Coast.
The measures will not provide any relief from high gasoline prices, but the Obama administration and lawmakers want to send a message that they are doing something to ease the pain at the pump.
Republicans have responded by passing a series of bills in the House to expedite and expand offshore oil and gas drilling, and the Senate is scheduled to take up similar measures this week.
The Senate blocked a bill Tuesday that would repeal about $2 billion a year in tax breaks for the five biggest oil companies, a Democratic response to $4-a-gallon gasoline that might fare better when Congress and the White House negotiate a deal later this year to increase the government’s ability to borrow.
Environmental groups question safety of new drilling
Ohio DNR spokeswoman Laura Jones said contractors are poring over county recorder records to determine where the state owns the mineral rights and where they may already be assigned. For example, Columbia Gas Co. owns gas storage fields in Hocking, Mohican and Malabar state parks, she said. So far, it looks like DNR controls the rights on at least 34,590 of the 115,300 acres of parkland.
Jennifer Miller of the Sierra Club said high volume, deep level horizontal hydrofracking — a new technique used to force natural gas deposits out — led to fires, water contamination and fires in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and other states.
“We are concerned that the same kinds of accidents could happen in Ohio. There are over 50 organizations asking for a moratorium on deep shale hydrofracking on public and private lands,” Miller said. “We would like for Ohio to learn the lessons from other states and wait until we know how to protect our public and our water resources.”
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council added, “It’s a driller’s dream. It’s a false economy. The only ones getting rich will be the industry.”
Stewart countered that vertical and horizontal hydrofracking, which blasts water into a well to fracture the earth and create a path for gas and oil deposits to travel, has been used for more than 50 years.
Stewart calls House Bill 133 the most robust and well-thought out of the three pending bills.
The bill would establish a four-member Oil and Gas Leasing Board appointed by the governor to put drillable lands up for bid and require state agencies to classify their lands, based on any deed restrictions or encumbrances.
By Laura A. Bischoff, Columbus Bureau