Barkcamp State Park is one of the few places where visitors can experience Ohio’s forests as they were before European settlement. Once the site of a historic logging camp, today it is a destination for camping, fishing, and other outdoor recreation.
It’s also a place that could see fresh pressure on oil and gas development if Ohio lawmakers pass a lame-duck bill this month that would remove barriers to drilling beneath public lands.
Neither supporters nor critics have singled out specific parks that could be of interest to the industry, but a planning document from a previous gubernatorial administration reveals at least three areas where oil and gas exploration could take place. They include Barkcamp, as well as Wolf Run State Park and Suncreek Fish State Forest.
That document — a strategic communications plan developed by members of the Kasich administration and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in 2012 — sparked a political controversy known as Frackgate after it went public two years later. It also predicted the backlash likely to follow any proposal to drill under state parks.
“Vocal opponents of this initiative will respond emotionally, communicating aggressively to the news media and online, and attempting to portray it as an unprecedented and risky state policy.” the communication plan said.
For more than a decade, Ohio law has said that an agency “may” lease land for oil and gas drilling. House bill 507which was passed by the Ohio Senate last week without any public testimony about the last-minute changes, would change that by saying the agency will lease the land “in good faith.”
If the bill becomes law, “essentially the state agency would have to lease the land when the oil and gas company shows up at the door and claims the lease,” said attorney Nathan Johnson, director of public lands for the Ohio Environmental Council. He said the amendment would give oil and gas companies free rein, with few safeguards for competing public interests or the environment.
The same legislation would also declare natural gas to be “green energy”.
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A Law of 2011 created an oil and gas leasing committee and outlined a framework for it to decide on licensing for drilling and entering into leases through a competitive bidding process. Lawmakers approved the bill, and Governor John Kasich signed it into law about a year before another bill opened the state to widespread fracking and horizontal drilling.
By the summer of 2012, members of the Kasich administrationOhio Department of Natural Resources and others compiled strategic communication plan before possibly continuing to drill in Barkcamp, Wolf Run and Sunfish Creek. All three are in Ohio counties top seven oil and gas producers.
The communication plan became public at the beginning of 2014 and resulted in outrage of the Sierra Club, the Ohio Environmental Council, ProgressOhio and other groups. Days later, Kasich said he had changed his position about drilling on public lands. A pro-industry newsletter predicted “Frackgatewould remain a problem in Ohio for some time to come.
An account from 2015 initially would have required drilling under state public lands in some cases, but was amended in committee to exclude drilling under state parks. The House passed the bill, but it failed to reach a vote in the Senate.
Meanwhile, Kasich did not appoint anyone to the rental committee who would decide on permitted permits. Terms in a budget bill for 2017 then tried deprives the governor of his power to name committee members, and the House voted in favor Overwrite Kasich’s veto. Faced with possible defeat, he began to make arrangements.
Gov. Mike DeWine continued to nominate individuals to the committee, which took some action. Comments on a proposed standard rental form are expected January 13. However, definitive rules for the leasing procedures have not yet been established.
Meanwhile, the 2011 law leaves leasing issues to individual government agencies. Some limited drilling on public lands of the state has taken place under current law. Some political subdivisions also have leases in place, including the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District.
Where we are now
Oil and gas companies “currently have the right to drill under state land. But there’s no deadline, there’s no real expedited process for them to drill,” said committee chair Senator Tim Schaffer, R-Lancaster, when the Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources reviewed HB 507 on December 6. Some procedures take years, he added.
“It’s in the current law that we can do this, and these drills could do this,” Schaffer said. “And it’s designed very strictly to make sure we’re protecting the environment. We’re protecting public lands.”
Current statutes require consideration of whether drilling would conflict with other uses of the public land, as well as environmental and potential geological impacts. It is unclear how those provisions would apply before the letting committee approves rules for reviewing proposed lots to be drilled and accepting bids on them.
The language in the amendment appears to call for little more than showing package identification and registration, proof of insurance and meeting financial security requirements. The legislative synopsis for the new legal text said it “requires, rather than authorizes, each government agency to lease oil and gas resources owned or controlled by an agency for development before the date on which the rules for leasing procedures are adopted by the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission.”
“This amendment is truly a power grab by the oil and gas industry,” Johnson said. Agencies would lose discretion and the industry could say when and where to drill on public lands, he said. “It puts the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”
“We strongly disagree,” said Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, noting that the terms of a lease must still be fair and reasonable. According to him, HB 507 would only help the process forward, especially where smaller plots are part of larger areas where horizontal drilling would go under. Such lots are often owned or supervised by agencies such as the Ohio Department of Transportation and Department of Administrative Services, he noted.
“The amendment does not interfere with or conflict with any other interest in state land,” Brundett said. All leases would still have to be “on just and reasonable terms”, and the use of the area of state lands for development purposes would be prohibited, “unless the state agrees”.
Critics worry that the new wording of the law will prevent agencies from saying no.
“The language change from ‘can’ to ‘will’ changes the basis of the assessment process from leasing as permissive to mandatory. It takes over from ‘You can do this’ to ‘you to have to do this,” said Neil Waggoner, who leads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign in Ohio. He and others are also concerned about oil and gas operations in state parks and forests.
“This is all about going underground, from outside a park facility or whatever. … If civilians use the park, they would never know the difference because it’s not over land,” Schaffer said.
But the wording of HB 507 contemplates possible consent to surface operations, if an agency agrees. The Invoice 2015 passed by the Ohio House expressly excludes all operations in or under state parks and prohibits surface drilling in state forests.
“Nobody wants a fracking facility in a state park,” Wagoner said.
The House could already approve the amended version on Tuesday 13 December.
When asked if DeWine would veto the entire bill or parts related to natural gas, spokesman Dan Tierney said they are reviewing the bill and have not yet taken a formal position.