Ohio panel to decide on fracking state parks this week

COLUMBUS, Ohio – A state government panel is slated to make a final decision Nov. 15 about whether to open thousands of acres of state parks and other state lands for oil and gas exploration.

Pending the outcome, the minerals beneath Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County, Wolf Run State Park in Noble County, Valley Run Wildlife Area in Carroll County, and Zepernick Run Wildlife Area in Columbiana County could soon go out to the “highest and best” bid. Commissioners will vote Nov. 15 on whether to open areas of those state resources for bidding by companies that want to extract oil and gas from beneath the land.

The largest application spans 20,855 acres at Salt Fork, a lush expanse wrapping around Salt Fork Lake, then another for nearly 2,100 acres at Wolf Run State Park, a lesser-known park on a quiet lake in Noble County.

When the Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission meets Wednesday morning, it could all but finalize the fruit of a leasing system created in 2011 to capture the gas underneath some of Ohio’s most pristine spaces. However, it took a 2022 law to effectively force-start the leasing process. That recent legal change also legally redefined natural gas as “green energy” – which changed little in practical terms but reflects the political clout the industry wields in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

While the new law allows for surface use disruptions on leased lands, Gov. Mike DeWine said when he signed House Bill 507 that his administration would not. Thus, companies must drill down thousands of feet from adjacent well pads before turning 90 degrees and reaching horizontally. From there, drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to free methane from shale.

Available evidence suggests vast sums are on the table. In January, Houston-based Encino Energy offered the state an estimated nearly $2 billion over 15 years – a $115 million signing bonus plus 20% royalty payments – to get under Salt Fork. DeWine has said through a spokesman he effectively declined the offer, waiting for the OGLMC to finish its rulemaking process.

Since then, 98 individuals have registered to lobby the OGLMC on behalf of the likes of Marathon, Shell, BP, Encino, Columbia Gas, EQT Corp., Gulfport Energy, TC Energy, Ascent Resources, Calpine Energy Solutions, Vistra Corp. and others.

State law shields the identities of the companies requesting the land, as well as the terms of their offers, until a finalist has been selected.

The state land leasing is the next chapter in a seismic boom in natural gas production that started around 2010 with the use of fracking on Marcellus and Utica shale fields. In Ohio, natural gas production increased 27-fold between 2012 and 2022, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The commissioners met in September with the intention of deciding on the 10 different land nominations on their desks. They punted on the decision, however, citing a need for more stakeholder input. They did so in the face of a room of dozens of angry environmentalists urging rejection, citing a need to protect state lands from development. In the weeks before the hearing, Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer published several articles about more than 100 Ohioans saying their names were used without their knowing consent on letters submitted to the OGLMC urging them to support fracking Salt Fork State Park.

After that report, Attorney General Dave Yost announced an investigation into the Consumer Energy Alliance, which submitted the letters. He declined through a spokeswoman to offer any update on Monday. A CEA spokesman said the nonprofit continues to cooperate and provide all requested information but declined to provide specifics.

Members of Save Ohio Parks, a grassroots advocacy organization, have attended OGLMC meetings and waged public comment campaigns to pressure the board to reject the leases. They’ve argued fracking spoils undeveloped land, heats the planet, damages the land and harms people who live near operations, all for private benefit of a largely out-of-state industry.