A state commission will soon decide whether to greenlight drilling for natural gas under Ohio state parks, wildlife areas, and other state-owned lands.
Ohio’s Oil & Gas Land Management Commission is currently considering a dozen applications to extract natural gas from state property under new rules adopted pursuant to a state law that requires it to expedite such requests.
Public comments on the first batch of proposals, which include parcels at Salt Fork State Park and Valley Run and Zepernick wildlife areas, are due July 20. Comments on proposals affecting Wolf Run State Park and other parcels are due July 28 or Aug. 11. Rulings could come in the next few months.
The commission was created under a 2011 state law that gave agencies the option of directly leasing state property for oil and gas drilling until the commission had leasing procedures in place. A last-minute amendment to an unrelated bill this spring would have automatically mandated agency leases for drilling until the commission adopted procedures and lease terms. A lawsuit by groups opposing that law is pending in the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas.
Meanwhile, the commission adopted those rules in May, along with a lease form that took effect on May 28. Drilling proposals started coming in two days later.
Gov. Mike DeWine said in January that his administration’s policy against new surface drilling in state parks would continue. However, the new procedures allow applications for horizontal drilling under parks from well pads situated just beyond the surface boundaries of parks and wildlife areas.
“A frack rig right outside the park borders is still going to have a major effect on the experience in that park,” said Cathy Cowan Becker, a co-founder of Save Ohio Parks.
People come to Ohio parks and wildlife areas for hiking, camping, swimming, boating, fishing and other activities, Becker said, and their use and enjoyment would be adversely affected by lights, noise, increased traffic and air emissions from well pads. Ohio has also had multiple accidents relating to oil and gas. A July 5 oil spill reached the Tuscarawas River, and a July 11 methane leak 20 miles north of the Zepernick Wildlife Area required the evacuation of 450 people.
“What if this had happened next to a state park or wildlife area?” Becker said. “How will the ODNR and [Ohio Environmental Protection Agency] evacuate an entire park full of campers, hikers, swimmers, hunters, and tourists? How will the air and water pollution affect these pristine spaces?”
Even without accidents, drilling fracked gas from state parks or wildlife areas would affect the resources and habitats there, said environmental scientist Randi Pokladnik. Horizontal fracturing of a formation to get natural gas to flow out requires millions of gallons of water, plus smaller amounts of potentially toxic chemical mixtures whose makeup is kept secret.
Those massive amounts of water must come from somewhere. And even if the water did not directly come from a lake where people swim, boat or fish, withdrawing the necessary quantities could lower water levels throughout an area, Pokladnik said. Dust and silt from well pad construction and traffic could also negatively impact species in streams, such as hellbenders, she added.
Huge amounts of water do flow back up after fracking, along with substantial concentrations of salt and some radioactive compounds. Trucks transport much of the flowback water to injection wells, where it’s removed from the water cycle, but massive spills have happened, including one in Noble County in 2021. Smaller amounts of wastewater also come up when wells are in production.
“We’re open to considering presentations from anyone,” commission chair Ryan Richardson said at the May 15 meeting when the procedures for picking parcels were finalized. And Pokladnik did make a short presentation at the commission’s June 28 meeting. FracTracker’s Great Lakes Program Coordinator Ted Auch also spoke, as well as emergency response and hazardous materials expert Silverio Caggiano, a former battalion chief at the Youngstown Fire Department.
By then, the comment period was already running on some of the parcel nominations. One commissioner didn’t show up, another was late, and those who were there “didn’t ask me anything about the issues related to the forest ecosystem,” Pokladnik said.
Commission member Jim McGregor said the staff is looking further into the issues Caggiano raised. “The first responders have got to be protected in some way,” he said. The presentations by Pokladnik and Auch were more generic, he added.
“We have a mandate from the legislature that says we shall lease public lands for fracking. And I think we’re not there to simply say no,” McGregor said. “So, we have to look at each of these requests, applications, individually and on the specific merits of the geology or the hydrology or those kinds of issues.”
The commission’s makeup does not require scientific expertise or community representation, said Shelly Corbin, an Ohio campaign representative with the Sierra Club’s Beyond Dirty Fuels program. Richardson, the chair, is an ODNR lawyer and ODNR Director Mary Mertz’s designee. McGregor has a graduate degree in public administration and has worked as a parks naturalist. DeWine appointed him to fill the law’s requirement for someone from a statewide environmental or conservation group.
Dewine’s other appointments include Stephen Buehrer, to satisfy the requirement for someone “with expertise in finance or real estate.” And lawyers Matt Warnock and Michael Wise are DeWine’s two appointments who were recommended by an oil and gas industry group.
ODNR’s media office provided a link to the parcel nominations but did not otherwise answer questions posed by the Energy News Network.
On a timetable
While House Bill 507’s mandatory leasing has been averted, state law calls for the commission to hold a meeting within 120 days of a parcel being proposed for drilling “for the purpose of determining whether to approve or disapprove the nomination.”
McGregor said the meeting could include hearing from and posing questions to a company representative. And there might be issues the commission would want to follow up on afterward. But the meeting won’t be a trial-like proceeding with advocates for different sides cross-examining witnesses.
The commission might make its decisions at that meeting, but the law allows up to two calendar quarters to make a ruling.
That “leaves open a little bit of a buffer there, but in general we have to meet within 120 days, and the nomination cannot be out there” indefinitely, Richardson said at the commission’s May 15 meeting, adding, “we have to follow the terms of the statute.”
Environmental advocates had asked for at least 60 days for the public to provide comments on proposed drilling sites, Corbin said. But the commission chose a shorter, 45-day public comment period, which ends July 20 for some parcels.
In Richardson’s view, that shorter period should allow for public comment while striking a balance with the rest of the timetable. “We do have statutory limits as well in terms of how and when we need to make a decision, making sure we have enough time to actually read and consider the comments,” Richardson said.
In contrast, the Ohio Power Siting Board’s process for approving solar and wind projects often takes years, including thousands of pages of materials and hearings with witnesses and other evidence, Becker noted. “There’s nothing like this for fracking,” she said.
A 2020 Ohio Supreme Court case could lend support to the argument that the commission must act within the statutory time frame. The Ohio Supreme Court ruled against ODNR’s Oil & Gas Division, despite the agency’s desire to hold a public hearing after receiving a large number of comments opposing an injection well site in Belmont County. The opponents included coal magnate Bob Murray, whose legal action added to delays when he objected to a virtual meeting rather than an in-person meeting.
When the leasing commission decides on the state land drilling proposals, the state says it shall consider multiple factors. Anticipated economic benefits head up the list. Other issues include whether oil and gas operations are “compatible with the current uses” of properties, environmental impacts, potential geological impacts, impacts to visitors and various comments received by the commission.
Corbin worried that any “very quick, hasty approval” from the commission won’t fully “evaluate all the impacts for the environment and to ourselves. The way that we see it is that it’s a continuation of the poisoning of the land.”