Senate passes bill expanding drilling on state land; dubbing gas ‘green energy’

COLUMBUS – Within 24 hours of unveiling the idea, Ohio Senate Republicans passed legislation Wednesday that would expand the ability to drill for oil and gas on state-owned lands, including state parks.

The legislation would also create a broad new legal definition of “green energy” – a term that typically refers to power derived from the sun, wind or water – that would include not only natural gas but also any energy that “is more sustainable and reliable relative to some fossil fuels.”

Several energy experts scoffed at the notion of calling natural gas “green” energy, noting that it’s a fossil fuel that emits both methane and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, both of which are heat-trapping greenhouse gasses that drive climate change.

The legislation would also prohibit cities from banning pesticides within their borders.

House Bill 507 passed the Senate on a 22-7 vote. All Democrats present voted no, along with Sen. Matt Dolan, a Chagrin Falls Republican. All other Republicans voted yes. The bill now returns to the Ohio House, which can accept the Senate’s revisions or demand a conference committee to negotiate changes.

The legislation marks a win for the natural gas industry. It’s also a showing of the means lawmakers use to run legislation during the lame-duck session, which runs against an end-of-year deadline.

The Senate added the gas amendments into an unrelated House-passed bill late Tuesday afternoon. The Ohio Senate’s newsletter on Wednesday described the bill in its orginal form: legislation that “changes the number of poultry chicks that may be sold in lots.” A senator even referred to it as “the chicken bill” during a floor debate.

A 2011 state law gave state agencies the authority, if they choose, to lease out state lands for oil and gas exploration and production. The new amendments to House Bill 507 would change that language to say a state agency “shall” accept a lease that meets certain conditions, instead of saying it “may” do so. In other words, it forces an agency to grant the lease application from oil and gas drillers.

State parks are a major portion of Ohio’s public lands portfolio, and there have been rumblings of industry interest in capturing gas beneath Salt Fork State Park in Guernsey County, according to Nathan Johnson, public lands director for the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund. This bill would force the agencies’ hands.

But the law is really about helping producers secure leases to isolated parcels of state-owned land, not necessarily parks, that have bogged down projects, according to Ohio Oil and Gas Association President Rob Brundrett. He said the amendment will tamp down on these delays while the Ohio Department of Natural Resources hashes out rules to govern the leasing process.

“It’s not like there’s going to be a bunch of rigs in state parks,” he said, though he conceded there has been interest in energy projects in state parks. and The Plain Dealer reached out to ODNR for comment.

Jeff Bielicki, a professor at Ohio State University, leads research at the school’s Sustainability Institute. He sees a future for natural gas, given that it burns marginally cleaner than coal and can provide power on the spot where renewables aren’t producing at scale.

But methane, an especially potent greenhouse gas, tends to leak during the transfer of gas, he said. And concepts of sustainability and conservation should drive policy. Gas drilling brings noise, trucks, wastewater disposal and other disruptions that don’t belong near state parks.

“State lands are state lands in part because we want to conserve them for some reason. And we derive a lot of benefits from keeping things in their natural state,” he said. “These amendments seem to me to be narrowly focused on one aspect of our energy system, when what we really need to be doing is transferring away from natural gas.”

Defending the rebranding of natural gas a “green energy,” Ohio Sen. Tim Schaffer, a Lancaster Republican, cited a similar, controversial decision from the European Union to consider natural gas as a sustainable source of energy. (That decision sparked an ongoing lawsuit.)

“Ohio and the U.S. need to keep pace with that development in Europe,” he said.

Brundrett said the idea did not come from OOGA, which has no position on whether gas is a green energy.

Environmental lobbyists, plus three different environmental researchers contacted by and The Plain Dealer unequivocally rebuffed any notion that natural gas is “green” or “renewable.” Most agree that it’s cleaner than coal, and the methane it produces dissipates from atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide. But that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas in the meantime.

Between siting a well, siting pipelines, methane leaks, community and water effects near wells, and others, it’s just not a green energy, they said.

“From the extraction through the combustion, the environmental footprint associated with [natural gas] is heavy,” said Cinnamon Carlarne, the Robert J. Lynn Chair in Law at OSU.

Discussion of the bill was light on the Senate floor. Senate Minority Leader Kenny Yuko, a ranking Democrat from the Cleveland area, cited a list of problems he had with the bill. They included how it was written behind closed doors, its removal of state agency discretion on leasing land to drillers, how it “erodes” state energy policy, and calling a fossil fuel a green energy.

“Drilling in state parks in a bill that’s supposed to be about food safety?” he asked incredulously.

Senate President Matt Huffman, a Lima Republican, defended the bill after Wednesday’s session. He noted the EU action, that gas burns cleaner than coal, and that it’s cost effective.

A spokesman said Gov. Mike DeWine is reviewing the bill and has not yet taken any position on it. In an interview this fall with and The Plain Dealer’s editorial board, he was asked a question about whether Ohio can pivot to a renewable energy future and cited natural gas in his response.

“One of the great assets that we have that is a lot less carbon producing is natural gas,” he said. “Our ability to move to natural gas, we’re already doing it at a fairly fast pace. We can continue to do that.”