Schools, State Leaders Getting In On Ohio Gas Boom

Listen to the Story

One of the many natural gas pumps that have sprung up around Ohio in recent years.(Photo: Flickr)
One of the many natural gas pumps that have sprung up around Ohio in recent years.(Photo: Flickr)

So far, fracking in Ohio has been largely seen as an “out-in-the-country” thing: in farmer’s fields and on wooded hill tops.

But drilling rigs are popping up in some unexpected places.

Geological maps of Ohio’s Utica and Marcellus shales don’t show parks, highways, 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.

“So there’s a real…whether it’s a moral dilemma or not, the bottom line is, it’s here, we might as well be part of it.”

RuthAnn Rinto is superintendent of United Local Schools in Columbia County. There, repeated levy failures have the system facing a 600-thousand-dollar deficit.

“So, someone comes by and say’s how about we give you $200-thousand dollars. 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-thousand dollars in one-time revenue for the school district. As she sees it, public land and the value of the mineral rights should be used, and benefit to the public good.

“With about 3-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 Jewitt in Harrison County, the board of the Jewitt Sportsman and Farmers Club – a beautiful outdoor park in the hills just outside the village – got a court order to block horizontal drilling and fracking operations under 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 the issues related to industrializing the rural landscape.

“I think you can draw a lot of parallels with the invention of strip mining…….500-thousand square feet.”

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 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….…and that’s what we’re in the process of doing,” says ODOT spokesman Steve Faulkner.

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.

Ohio colleges and universities are targets for drilling too. And, Kent State University, with its eight campuses, already has experience with leasing for other kinds of 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……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 i have topped 7-billion dollars. There are no figures yet on how many acres of state land might still be leasable, but the current average for up-front payment is 25-hundred dollars per acre.

Comments