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Commission advances rules, leasing forms for drilling on Ohio’s state lands




Cheryl Johncox showing attendees a sign from a playground at the state fair, encouraging kids to explore oil and gas in Ohio. (photo by Nick Evans)

Environmentalists demanded public input and oversight before oil and gas companies gain clearance to drill on public lands. The five-member oil and gas land management commission heard public comment Wednesday before approving a new standard lease form and rules.

The process to lease public lands for oil and gas exploration has been exceptionally slow. Lawmakers established the commission in 2011, charged with drafting rules and a standard leasing form. Then-Gov. John Kasich never selected commissioners. Gov. Mike DeWine filled the seats, but the panel has yet to finalize its work.

Frustrated with the commission’s pace, state lawmakers passed House Bill 507 late last year ordering agencies to go forward with leases — bypassing the commission altogether until it adopts rules. That legislation takes effect April 7.

The provisions approved Wednesday now head to Ohio’s Common Sense Initiative and the Joint Commission on Agency Rule Review for consideration. It’s possible a final rule will be in place by April 7, but it’s not a certainty.

Public demands

At root, activists are insisting on a transparent process. Much as they oppose oil and gas exploration, they recognize there’s no mechanism currently to prohibit it. Gabe Karns from Ohio Backcountry Hunters and Anglers acknowledged the multiple demands on public lands.

“However narrow or broadly you wish to define that,” he argued, “today’s issue lies at the tipping point of that balance.”

He and many others pressed the commission for explicit public notice provisions. They want the commission to post parcels up for lease on their website with links to a map and 60-120 days for public comment. The commission should also lay out the factors they’ll consider in their decision. Additionally, they told commissioners to set up an email notification system to alert subscribers of new parcels.

Commissioner Ryan Richardson agreed public participation is a must. But she argued many of those requirements already exist in statute.  The commission should simply establish internal procedures, she said, rather than writing them into the rules.

“I think we have certain discretion as a commission to develop procedures like putting things on the on the website — is it a portal, is it a link, how do we do that — that I think don’t necessarily require the full rulemaking process,” she explained.

Speaking after the hearing, Cathy Cowan-Becker was happy to see commissioners were generally amenable to their demands. And she insisted public scrutiny is still a powerful tool. Think about fracking next door to Hocking Hills, she said.

“That’s going to make a lot of people really upset.”

“We will be able to look up that company’s record and see if they are responsible for flaring and gas leaks or environmental devastation wherever they’ve been,” she described. “And you know, that will give us a fighting chance.”

The window

Advocates’ biggest opponent now is time. Joe Winner was one of many who warned about the ‘window’ that will open up between the effective date of HB 507 and the point at which the commission’s rules kick in. He argued chances are slim that rules will be in place by then.

“A window would ostensibly open,” he warned, “for leases to be executed without any of the following: public notice, opportunity for interested parties to comment or object, competitive bidding or oversight by this commission or anyone else to protect the public interest.”

Under HB 507, prospective drillers only need to approach a state agency to request access. The legislation includes a clause stating agencies “shall lease” to them in good faith. The only requirements a company faces are proving they have a license and insurance.

Nodding to speakers’ concerns Commissioner Jim McGregor said they should move forward quickly.

“I think that April 7 date that was pointed out in several testimonies today is getting close and on top of us and we should take every step possible to avoid leases being assigned without the review—the public review of this commission,” he said.

Matthew Warnock chimed in as well, backing Commissioner Richardson’s argument for establishing public notice procedures.

“I agree moving forward quickly and dealing with a number of these issues as part of a kind of procedures makes sense,” Warnock said. “You have the parameters laid out in the statute, and so I think a lot of it can be done just procedurally.”

Next steps

The commission made plans to meet again in about a month. Richardson plans to develop a draft of public notice procedures for the commission’s review.

Importantly, the provisions they’re working on only deal with subsurface mineral leases. State agencies are able to enter into surface leases if they choose. Although the commission doesn’t play a role in approving those agreements, they can play a role in advising agencies by setting up a standard lease agreement for surface projects. They’re inviting a watershed conservancy district official from Muskingum County to the March meeting to offer advice.

This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.

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