Under half the state
Geological maps of Ohio’s Utica and Marcellus shales don’t include parks, highways, and schools. What’s above ground shows little about how those ancient sea shores sprawl down below. That’s why drillers for oil and gas in the sometimes two-mile deep formations can be equally interested in a well in the middle of nowhere and one under a school.
A windfall for some schools
“So there’s a real [opportunity], Whether it’s a moral dilemma or not, the bottom line is, it’s here, and we might as well be part of it,” said RuthAnn Rinto, superintendent of United Local Schools in Columbia County. There, repeated levy failures have the system facing a $600,000 deficit. “So, someone comes by and say’s how about we give you $200,000. How do you say no; then have somebody says ‘you’re water might be bad.’ We might not have any kids to drink the water if we don’t have money to pay for our schools.”
The area is also a hotbed of shale-gas drilling and Rinto has signed two oil and gas leases to get that $200,000 in one-time revenue for the school district. As she sees it, public land and the value of its mineral rights should be used, and benefit the public good.
With about three million acres of Ohio’s mineral rights leased by energy companies in the past year, drillers are looking far and wide for more well sites including under schools, fair grounds, parks - even under cemeteries.
Not everybody is on board with that idea, however. Near the hamlet of Jewett in Harrison County, the board of the Jewett Sportsman and Farmers Club - a beautiful outdoor park and recreation area in the hills just outside the village - got a court order to block horizontal drilling and fracking operations using club land.
They don’t actually own the mineral rights under the property—those went to coal mining interests last century. But, Cadiz lawyer Owen Beetham, who represents the club, says Harrison County’s history with the ravages of surface mining leaves it sensitive to issues related to industrializing the rural landscape. “I think you can draw a lot of parallels with the invention of strip mining. I mean, if you drive down most roads in eastern Ohio, past farms, you’ll see a small pump jack,maybe 200 square feet…well now you’re talking about 500,000 square feet.”
Very public property
State park lands could be opened to shale-gas drilling too. Gov. John Kaisch has championed the idea and with fellow Republicans controlling the state Legislature, it is expected to happen. Lawmakers have already passed a bill authorizing a state Commission on Oil & Gas Leasing. Kasich says the idea is to capture as much revenue as possible from state property, use it to pay for an income tax cut, and in that way let all Ohioans, not just landowners, benefit from the gas boom.
In the case of another large batch of state land, money collected from drilling might go for something else.The Ohio Department of Transportation is actively exploring the possibility of leasing mineral rights under right-of-ways and on associated grounds of the state highway system.
“Looking at the mineral rights that ODOT currently owns is part of our process of looking at ways of generating revenue," said the department’s Steve Faulkner. "It’s a matter of going to the court house, flipping through these dusty records and seeing exactly what the mineral rights are for certain parcels of land; and that’s what we’re in the process of doing."
Faulkner says gas and oil money from drilling on and under highway property could help pay for major road and bridge projects stalled by the economic downturn.
Under the ivy
Ohio colleges and universities are targets for drilling too. And, Kent State University, with its eight campuses, already has experience with leasing for conventional drilling.
But, Tom Euclide, associate vice president for facilities planning and operations, says the university recognizes potential problems with fracking and is going slowly. “We have existing wells on our campuses. Several of our campuses have oil wells and gas wells. But the university doesn’t have any plans right now to do any additional deep exploration such as fracking until we understand more about the fracking process and how it might impact the land we sit on, and the water table that sits below us.”
Data released last month by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources indicates total lease payments in the current shale gas and oil boom have topped $7 billion. There are no figures yet on how many acres of state land might still be leasable, but the current average for up-front payment from would-be drillers is $2,500 per acre.