Extracting method making natural gas resolution tough for landowners to accept

Mariana Silva

Portage County is located above the largest known source of natural gas in the eastern United States.

The energy source, the Marcellus Shale formation, stretches from southern New York to West Virginia, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

The natural gas provides a tempting source for energy companies in the area.

In the past months, Chesapeake Energy and Kenyon Energy have sent letters to landowners and have had brokers meet with them to demonstrate the companies’ interest in drilling for natural gas.

But deciding whether to accept about $300 per acre from energy companies for a joint property lease hasn’t been a simple resolution for several Portage County landowners.

The method commonly used to extract natural gas is controversial, and there is little evidence as to its effects on the environment.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is when natural gas is extracted through deep well drilling, usually from shale or coalbeds. A well is drilled, and a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected under high pressure to open fissures in the rock. This allows natural gas to flow from the well easier.

Although fracking is not a new method — it has been around for about 60 years — the well depth and direction of drilling are different.

While wells were traditionally set up vertically to reach hundreds to thousands of feet below surface, the new method involves vertical sections and horizontal ones that reach greater depths. Horizontal distances can range from 1,000 to 6,000 feet.

Residents of several cities and townships in Portage County have received proposals from Chesapeake Energy or its associate, Kenyon Energy, for joint lease contracts to perform fracking. The companies have oil and gas leases in Shalersville, Paris Township, Edinburg, Palmyra, Rootstown, Randolph, Suffield, Freedom, Streetsboro, Brimfield, among other Portage County cities and townships, according to Portage County Recorders’ Office.

As of Dec. 8, there were 89 leases in the county with Chesapeake as property lessee. Kenyon appeared as lessee of 81 other locations.

Julie Buck was one of several Shalersville residents who felt signing with Chesapeake was a good idea. Buck was first offered $300 per acre, then $350 about four months ago.

“First I looked at the lease, and I thought $300 an acre?” she said.

Buck said she was inclined to sign the lease and make the most of her property when she observed her neighbors leasing their lands. But when she attended a meeting organized by Concerned Citizens of Portage County, a group dedicated to addressing environmental and health issues associated with fracking, Buck said she learned something the energy broker didn’t tell her.

“At the point I had been approached by them,” she said. “That’s what I was looking at, getting a buck worth. At the meeting I saw there is a lot more to it, a lot more that you don’t think is involved.”

Buck said brokers focused on how much money landowners could make and did not explain how the process might damage, for example, water supply if something goes wrong.

Other than meeting to present the dangers of fracking, Concerned Citizens of Portage County put together a showing of “Gasland,” a documentary about the effects of horizontal fracking in several states throughout the country.

Josh Fox, the film’s director, is a Pennsylvania landowner who was offered a lease contract with a gas company. He tells the story of landowners who lost their main water source, animals and sometimes family members to contaminated water caused by horizontal fracking.

The documentary showed how water was contaminated with gas to the point that a landowner could hold a lit match under a running faucet and the match kept its flame.

In extreme cases, landowners talked about how their family members died of cancer after drinking contaminated water.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an organization promoting responsible drilling, said it is “done under watchful eyes.” He said the new technology, drilling horizontally, reduces the equipment needed above ground and can obtain more gas.

Windle said that in Pennsylvania, for example, there are no standards for private wells, and methane is a naturally occurring substance in water. This would explain why water coming out of faucets might catch fire.

He said the film presents inaccurate facts about fracking, and the only disadvantage to the process is the disturbances caused by noise or trucks used in drilling. Fracturing the rock, he said, is only part of the entire drilling process.

Robert Beal, geologist, mud logger and proponent of hydraulic fracturing, has been working in the field since 1971. He explained water contamination is indeed a possibility when wells are not properly cemented and drilled, or when companies fail to constantly check the drilling site.

Wells, he explained, are prepared with a cement sleeve and a steel case that houses the mechanism that perforates the rock before the mixture of chemicals, water and sand is injected down the well. This prevents the mixture from contaminating any water source.

Even if a cement sleeve is used, broken seals or high pressure could cause a leak into underground water sources or cause gas or oil to escape to the surface.

But Beal said hydraulic fracturing presents no risk as long as the process is done right and responsibly.

“I’m a proponent for doing things that are going to benefit people to get more of what we have,” Beal said about natural gas, which is still one of the cleanest sources of energy used in the United States, often for everyday activities.

“My point is if everyone does their job in the best of their ability, and they do it safely, and they think through all of the process, and everyone does their job the best they can, then there shouldn’t be any worry about a bad accident happening to people living on the surface.”

Despite several tries, neither Kenyon nor Chesapeake officials could be reached to explain how the companies intend to perform the drilling in Portage County, when they expect to start drilling and why this region was chosen.

State Regulation

In 2005, the Senate amended and repealed sections of the Ohio Revised Code giving the Division of Mineral Resources in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources exclusive authority to regulate oil and gas laws and permits in the state.

Richard Simmers, ODNR statewide enforcement manager, said leases are private agreements between landowners and energy companies, and do not involve city or county in the process. He explained those companies file an application with the state, which decides to give or deny a permit to drill.

He said no incidents of the fracturing job causing contamination were ever recorded in Ohio and that if chemicals used in the process are ever to contaminate water, the companies involved would be prosecuted by ODNR.

Whether horizontal drilling can be harmful or not, Robert Worstall ODNR local supervisor for Portage County, advises landowners to contact an attorney specialized in oil and gas leases before signing contracts with any companies interested in their lands.

“I always recommend that the landowners read what’s in there and agree with what’s in there,” Worstall said. “Everything they want should be in writing. It is a legal contract, there shouldn’t be any verbal agreements. It is a two way street, the company proposes and the landowners can certainly propose whatever they want (back).”

Contact Mariana Silva at [email protected] .