Comment Period Ending Soon for Fracking on Ohio Public Lands

Fracking public lands in Ohio comment period ending soon!
by Gabe Karns and Dustin Lindley

As has been detailed in past posts "Beat the Chicken Bill" and "Public Comment Period Needed", we have been watching the passage and ongoing rollout of the fracking chicken bill in Ohio, HB 507. The short story is that this bill makes it much easier to get a lease to use hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas under certain public lands including a number of state parks. In Ohio, Governor Mike DeWine has promised that there will be no surface activity related to drilling on public land, and pushback in the last few months has effectively closed a loophole that would have enabled such activity on Ohio public lands - a substantial win in our opinion. Now the focus has turned to horizontal drilling technology to extract natural gas under public land from well pads on adjacent private lands. For a good description of the events, check out "Ohio opens door to applications for oil and gas drilling underneath state parks". 

The current process for attaining rights to extract natural gas from under Ohio public lands only includes one small window of public comment. Before actual extraction can begin, the leasing process must unfold. The lease process starts when a company proposes private well pad locations on the surface for subsurface extraction rights on public parcels to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Oil and Gas Resources. These are posted on the ODNR website (Oil and Gas Land Management Commission's Website) for 45 days, during which time, the Division will accept email comments on the proposed locations ([email protected]). The extension of this comment period from a proposed 21 to the implemented 45 days is a win for BHA and various other organizations that have advocated on behalf of the public, but is not sufficient. The comment period for the first of the nominations, including nominations around Salt Fork State Park and Valley Run Wildlife Area, ends on July 21!

Once that public comment period closes, the process goes dark and potential negotiation and granting of the lease takes place with no public comment. This is unacceptable. It is simply not possible to evaluate a hydraulic fracturing proposal based on an approximate location. Greater detail is required, including disclosure of the company that has proposed these locations, among other things. For a description of factors that should be available in considering this, see "A Consideration of Wildlife in the Benefit-Costs of Hydraulic Fracturing: Expanding to an E3 Analysis", but we consider reasonable public comment the barest of minimum requirements.
The Ohio BHA board continues to push for more public comment and transparency to the leasing process, while many board members are personally evaluating proposed locations for problematic features. Two notable, very basic metrics we are using to evaluate these currently proposed locations are:

  • How close to the edge of the public is the well pad?
    At all phases of the construction and operation of a hydraulic fracturing well pad, there will be disruption to surrounding wildlife. If someone hunting public land could throw a rock and hit the equipment, then the proposed well pad is probably too close to the edge and will substantially impact the wildlife there.
  • What is downhill from the well pad?
    Spills are a reality, and fracking uses a large amount of water. Evaluation of well pad location should take this into account, ensuring that any critical waterways are protected by topography.
As examples of what we're looking at with these proposals, here are some well pad satellite photos on a topographical map. These are actual well pads from Eastern Ohio, but get at some of the issues at hand.

The first of these is less than 300 yards from surface waters of a major waterbody.  Straight downhill to the lake.  Too close, too risky.
Example #1 - Bad idea!!!

The second pad example is substantially farther away from the water (0.85 mi vs 0.15 mi in Example #1, but has other factors at play. The most critical of these is that the well pad is upstream of a major waterway, but has to pass through a public land recreational area to get to the lake. If something goes wrong here, it's disaster on an epic scale because of proximity to that recreation hotspot.

Example #2: Not great either

Example #3 presents fewer problems from a spill point of view, is fairly distant from the water, and more importantly, is topologically isolated from the lake by a big valley.

Example #3: Topographical isolation!

One final consideration is that of money – it cannot be ignored. The windfall of royalties resulting from approved leases is not insignificant. Currently, there are no explicit and reliable statements of where royalties would go. Advocating for the financial implications to be spelled out in no uncertain terms – that royalties from Ohio public lands go back to the agency charged with managing them – Ohio Department of Natural Resources – seems like a common sense reasonable ask. Unfortunately, common sense went out the window months ago when the chicken bill first clucked. It would appear some of the original twisted bill’s backers have other ideas for where the extra coin should be spent (The Next Fracking Frontier), but we will continue to push for transparency. This resource is of substantial value, and is shared by all. We do not intend to allow the resource to be wasted or to leave our land wasted in getting the resource, and that means getting to know the companies and what they plan.

We don't have to consider the larger questions in a vacuum, either. Look to the cases of Pennsylvania and New York, who have taken very different approaches to the use of hydraulic fracturing on public land. New York has banned hydraulic fracturing on any land, while Pennsylvania has significantly opened it's public land to fracking (Fracking yeild both fears, funding in Pennsylvania). In the case of Pennsylvania, it appears to be a mixed bag. One positive note is that it's been ruled by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the funds generated should stay in the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources and put towards conservation. It is hoped that state legislators in Ohio pay attention to that court ruling and don't try to use this revenue to pay their benefactors. We support well funded state organizations, but the scars on the land can be significant. It's a price to pay too. As to the NY vs PA question, both states have beautiful public lands and waterways and unique outdoor opportunities. That's something for all to consider as well, especially for those of us that live within driving distance!
We hope that this information will help our members and others better understand this issue in a nuanced way, and that they will provide comments to the process for proposed well pad locations near public land in their area. We cannot consider every factor, and our analysis here is relatively simple, but serves as a starting point for additional questions.
About Ohio BHA Chapter

Our chapter is dedicated to serving the interests of conservation and access to clean public lands and waters. Through planning, collaboration, and dedication, we will make a difference.

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