Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Makeup of gas drilling board a sticking point

Columbus – Pending legislation that would open Ohio’s state
parks and nature preserves to crude oil and natural gas drilling
continues to generate controversy and intense debate.

Part of that has to do with the makeup of an oversight board
that would not include the DNR Division of Parks and Recreation nor
the Division of Wildlife among others.

Oil and gas drilling is already allowed in state forests and
wildlife areas, but sections of House Bill 357 – a bill in the
House Alternative Energy Committee – would also permit drilling in
developed areas of state parks and preserves (Ohio Outdoor News,
Jan. 4).

The bill calls for creation of a five-member Oil and Gas Leasing
Board to oversee a fair and open leasing program for developed
state-owned lands.

“Developed” lands are defined as those covered by asphalt,
concrete, gravel, turf (as in a golf course), crops, or fields that
have plants or trees not exceeding 10 years of growth. Pristine
lands would not be open to drilling.

Supporters of the legislation – sponsored by Rep. Jim McGregor,
R-Gahanna, who chairs the Alternative Energy Committee – say
expanded drilling would help create low-cost fuel for Ohio with
minimal environmental impact and increase state revenue from lease
and royalty payments.

Opponents say it would barely address the state’s energy needs
and may threaten many of Ohio’s most treasured public places that
the state has an obligation to protect.

Many also object to the proposed composition of the leasing
board, which would include an oil and gas engineer, an oil and gas
company representative, a member of the public, and two DNR
officials: the chiefs of the divisions of Mineral Resource
Management and Geological Survey.

There would be no representatives of DNR divisions that manage
state parks and preserves, such as the Division of Parks and
Recreation, the Division of Forestry, or the Division of Natural
Areas and Preserves. The Division of Wildlife would also not be
represented directly on the board.

McGregor knows the drilling portion of the bill has its critics,
but he hopes a solution will be reached “that everyone can live
with” as Ohio strives to become more energy independent.   

“People around the world are recognizing the value of
alternative energy,” he said. “In Ohio, we have a wealth of people
and companies ready to make massive investments in wind energy,
solar, distributed generation, coal and bio-based diesel, natural
gas, and other forms of energy.”

However, McGregor claims that “antiquated laws and market
restraints” are hindering energy development, a problem that state
government is working to remedy. One option, provided for under HB
357, would be tapping into what he calls “a tremendous resource in
clean natural gas under many of our parks and preserves.”

In testimony before the Alternative Energy Committee last
November, Joel Rudicil, president of a northeast Ohio drilling
company, noted that the state is Ohio’s largest property owner with
natural gas and crude oil potential under its lands.

The DNR owns and manages more than 600,000 acres in its 74 state
parks, 20 state forests, 127 nature preserves, and 120 wildlife
areas.

Rudicil said about half of that acreage is prospective for gas
and oil well development in known producing areas of the state,
primarily in the eastern half. Even if only 25 percent of
state-owned acreage is accessible for drilling, he added, the DNR
still controls enough land to support a multi-year drilling
program.

With these resources, McGregor said, the DNR could bring in an
estimated $30 million per year for 10 years, or about $300 million
over a decade, to “help it make ends meet” in a time of reduced
budgets for many state agencies.

“I believe the DNR should be supported by General Fund revenue
and not have to rely on fees for its support, but that’s not the
way it is,” McGregor said. “But this proposal can give us 10 years
of funding with almost zero environmental impact.”

Not so fast, says Jack Shaner, public affairs director of the
Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), which strongly opposes drilling
in state parks and preserves.

Shaner said the OEC considers the proposal a shortsighted “false
fix.” 

It is unnecessary, he said, because by law the vast majority of
state-owned and controlled land – its forests and wildlife areas –
is already open to drilling. Along with private property, where
drilling is also allowed with landowner consent, this constitutes
some 99 percent of Ohio land currently open to drilling.

Shaner said the proposal is also “unhelpful” because it wouldn’t
produce enough gas to solve energy needs, significantly increase
revenue, or lower fuel prices.

“Ohio wells produced a fraction of all the natural gas used in
the state in 2006. Even if all of our estimated reserves could be
developed at once, it would supply Ohio’s needs for only a few
years,” he said. “No consumer should think this is going to be a
boon to Ohio.”

In addition, Shaner said, the proposal is “unfaithful” and a
“promise-breaker” to citizens because it violates a state pledge to
always protect public parks and preserves from “harmful development
and extractive activities.”

“Our parks and preserves include many of Ohio’s most important
recreation areas and irreplaceable remnants of our natural
heritage,” he said. “Oil and gas extraction poses unavoidable
impacts and potential safety and environmental risks during and
long after the drilling begins – from excavation, tree removal,
road building, stream crossings, pipeline construction and
maintenance, compressor noise and oily odors.”

Shaner acknowledged that most drilling is done safely but he
added that there are “rare instances where there has been an
explosion or a leak. It’s not worth taking such risks in these
sensitive lands.”

Of further concern, he said, is the make-up of the five-member
leasing board.

“It would have two DNR members on it, but none from divisions
that actually manage the land,” he said. “It’s like saying the DNR
is too stupid to do this on its own and needs help from the oil and
gas industry, which is going to make a profit from this.

“The state is charged with protecting the public interest on
public lands,” Shaner said. “Suddenly, letting industry be involved
is inappropriate and makes no sense.”

The DNR referred questions about its position on the matter to
Gov. Ted Strickland’s office, where spokesman Keith Dailey said the
governor would not take a flat approach to the drilling issue but
would consider it “from a common sense viewpoint and on a
case-by-case basis. He realizes there are parks that are not
pristine.”

As for the make-up of the proposed leasing board, Dailey said
Strickland “finds that provision particularly problematic.”

McGregor admits this is a legitimate concern that merits
study.

“We’re not at all locked into that board designation,” he said,
noting that other DNR division representatives could be added. “I’m
not opposed to any solution that’s simple, straight-forward and
allows the money to get to the DNR. And what the industry wants is
just a one-stop shop for gaining lease approval.”

McGregor said the board composition may be the main source of
contention to the drilling issue for most groups, but he realizes
there are some, such as the OEC, that want no drilling ever in
parks and preserves.

“I’d support that position, too, if there were any other way to
produce revenue to support these divisions of the DNR, but there
aren’t any that I can think of,” he said.

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