Drill, Baby, Drill 

Suburban oil and gas drilling is sometimes dangerous and often divisive

Susan Fowler crosses her arms and gazes out the picture window above her kitchen sink. The view includes an inviting deck, lush trees and a towering oil derrick that stands just 89 feet from her property line. Much of the neighboring 13-acre property has been clear-cut to drill a total of three oil wells, and the project has forever changed her charming home and the surrounding Broadview Heights neighborhood.

"Had I known this was coming," she says, eyeing the derrick, "I never would have moved here."

She's not alone. Wells have been popping up all over Northeast Ohio since 2004, when the Ohio House and Senate passed House Bill 278, which usurped home rule for the installation of gas and oil wells for the entire state; potential drillers would no longer be subject to the whims of local governments. The legislation gave the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) sole jurisdiction on permitting, installation and regulatory enforcement of all Ohio wells.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Association gushed with joy. They touted the move as a liberation of the state's resources and a new weapon in the fight against the volatility of natural gas prices.

At first glance, the regulations sound invasive but not intolerable. A minimum of 20 acres is required for the average well, which may not be closer than 300 feet from the unit's boundary. Since the bill's inception, however, that deceptively simple concept has turned into an issue so divisive it is shredding lifelong friendships and tearing close-knit neighborhoods apart.

Nowhere in Northeast Ohio are the fights more vehement than in the otherwise sleepy burg of Broadview Heights, which has long been known as a hotspot for natural gas and oil. Since H.B. 278 was enacted, 67 new wells have been drilled in the city's 13 square miles.

The 20 acres associated with each well may belong to any number of landowners; collectively their properties comprise a "unit." The key part of that acreage is the 300 feet surrounding the well. Property owners within that circle must agree to be part of the aggregate in order for drilling to proceed. If they refuse to play ball, they may be subjected to "mandatory pooling," particularly if they own less than 10 percent of the unit.

The decision on whether to force a landowner to join the unit is made by ODNR's Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Council, which consists of eight appointed members: six representing oil and gas producers, one representing landowner royalty interests and one representing the public.

Read that last sentence again.

If that doesn't stack the cards against the little guy, the assembling of the 20 acres is where things get really dodgy. Any property can be part of the unit as long as it touches another property within it. There is no limit to the number of owners within the 20 acres or to how far away the acreage can be from the wellhead. The resulting unit shapes appear freakishly gerrymandered, with the lines drawn by mineral rights (which are separate from property rights and not necessarily held by the landowner). Unit plots I reviewed for this article included long fingers of land jutting into or out of the aggregate unit.

One gas company representative took exception to my use of the word "gerrymandered." But what else describes a skinny, nearly mile-long finger pointing out from an otherwise blocky 20-acre shape? Unit boundaries on other plots cut in and out in square fringes in order to trace around amenable property owners. A particularly obstinate landowner can end up surrounded by cooperating landowners, his or her land appearing as a hole in a map of the unit.

But rights are rights, right? As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, "The right to swing my fist ends where the other man's nose begins." With that in mind, consider a typical well installation: There's clear-cutting, putting in an access road, erecting an oil derrick, 24-hour klieg lights and a noise so stentorian it could make Dick Cheney cry. How do I know? There's a crude oil well in the field next to my house, about 500 feet away. I had no say in its construction, went nearly insane with the noise of the drilling and I don't get a dime in royalties.

That well was drilled in 2007, and today it's quiet and hidden by the dense tree growth around the field where it sits. Despite our rocky start, I freely admit that the well has been a good neighbor. Or so I thought.

When I walked into the field one day in September, the pumpjack or "nodding donkey" was politely dipping in and out of the earth inside its chain-link fence. But there was black sludge all around it, and the air was thick with a pungent oil odor. Outside of the fence, an area of about 50 by 90 feet was covered with hay, through which new grass was sprouting. All the peripheral natural grass was dead. Trees on the edge of the affected area had shriveled brown leaves, whereas all the other trees were lush and green. Something had happened here.

I called the owner, Bob Belovich, who does not reside on the property. He said that, no, neither the ODNR nor the EPA nor well owner, Ohio Valley Energy, had informed him of any release. Ohio Valley Energy's field representative told me that about five or six barrels of crude (which would equal between 200 and 300 gallons) had spilled, but everything had been cleaned up. He'd reported the incident to ODNR.

But then ODNR field inspector Norburt Lowder told me that only about one barrel of oil and "brine" (salty water from the ground) had been ejected from the well. He verified that no other public entities had been informed about the event (spills less than 210 gallons do not require further reporting), and that no soil, air or water tests were conducted. The liquid was mostly brine, he said, and added that the whole incident was due to a simple well "burp" during routine maintenance and repair.

While Lowder was telling me to put my request for a copy of the report and other questions in writing, another well in Ohio was getting ready to "burp," but with tragic results.

On September 10, 28-year-old Kenneth Hanson reported for work on Ginger Road in the small town of Freeport in Guernsey County. He and other crew members with CHIPCO LLC out of Zanesville were scheduled to plug a gas well. They filled the well with water. They followed procedures. But Mother Nature had other ideas. In an instant, a concentrated cloud of hydrogen sulfide escaped from the wellhead.

The Freeport volunteer fire department got a call that some men were down near a gas well. When Fire Chief Don Warnock and his team got within about 500 feet of the wellhead, their equipment indicated that the air was not safe to breathe. They donned protective gear and went in. Four of those rescued were hospitalized, one in critical condition. But it was too late for Hanson, who survived four years as a U.S. Marine but was no match for the deadly gas.

So how, then, does such a wellhead end up less than 140 feet from an occupied home?

With "directional drilling," oil companies can drill in one location, going deep under ground at an angle and even turning corners to access pockets of oil or gas hundreds, even thousands, of feet away from where the visible wellhead sits. This method adds approximately $100,000 to an otherwise $350,000 vertical drilling project, but is particularly useful in urban settings. It has boomed in Ohio since the new law.

"God didn't just put oil and gas under corn fields, he put it everywhere," says a gas company representative who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I hate drilling in urban areas, but there's just no place else to drill. Every day there's more and more [planned] developments, more people, more WalMarts. And they all use gas and oil."

The wellhead area consists of that familiar nodding pumpjack, its associated equipment and a tank battery that commonly has an aboveground oil tank and one for slurry. Depending on how you look at a pumpjack, it's either a quiet soldier fighting the good fight against sky-high home heating prices and OPEC, or it's an unsightly industrial blemish. It is a financial godsend to one homeowner and a hateful intrusion to his neighbor; the point of view is usually determined by whose name is on the royalty check.

"I've never gotten a complaint about a well from someone who's in on the pool," attests Broadview Heights assistant fire chief Joe Fleming, who adds that he's heard of monthly royalties ranging from $2 to $1,200.

With directional drilling, the most stringent rules apply to the land above the 300-foot-diameter "target zone" deep in the earth from which the oil or gas will ultimately be drawn, often a neighborhood or two away from the wellhead area. But the visible wellhead, with its installation derrick and klieg lights and its permanent pumpjack and tank battery, only requires a 75-foot setback from any adjacent property not associated with the unit. And even that requirement can be waived by the ODNR.

The phrase "not in my backyard" is usually figurative, but not in this case. Most Ohioans probably are not aware that an oil derrick can be erected just 75 feet from their property line and, as long as it is 100 feet from a dwelling and complies with Ohio code, there is not one thing they can do to stop it.

Hence, on the corner of Karen Lynne Drive and West Mill in Broadview Heights, there sits a large pumpjack and tank battery on a one-acre lot in a typical suburban neighborhood. It is next to residents who had no power over its construction and garner no royalties from it. The nearest home is less than 150 feet from the wellhead. The target zone for the well is about 500 feet away, under Interstate 77. Residents on the other side of the highway get monthly royalty checks, as do ODOT and a developer.

In an ironic twist, the neighbors adjacent to this wellhead willingly signed over their mineral rights on yet another well a neighborhood away — the one right behind Susan Fowler's home.

Directional drilling is also what allowed Fowler's neighbor Carol Pine to have multiple wellheads on her 13-acre Diana Drive lot (two are operating, one is under construction and yet another awaits permitting). One of the wells is vertical, and Pine's acreage is devoted mainly to it. The 20-acre units for all the other wells are connected to target zones that spider out from Pine's lot and conclude at points near and far. Between the existing and pending wells, drilling/well company Cutter Oil has collected more than 80 acres of mineral rights for the Pine wells belonging to more than 40 entities, including the City of Broadview Heights.

In May 2009, Broadview Heights city council agreed to lease an array of municipally owned parcels to Cutter Oil for five new wells. Many cities enter into such agreements. What set these apart was that the units were located in densely populated neighborhoods and included a bevy of privately owned parcels. Three of the well units abutted properties owned by residents who were vehemently against drilling, including the one behind Susan Fowler's lot. In yet another bizarre turn of this convoluted story, the mineral rights of the Fowlers' lot are actually part of that well's unit. But Fowler and her husband get no royalties.

When the Fowlers purchased their home in 2003, they weren't thinking about mineral rights and didn't know that the subdivision's developer, Lucky Acres, retained them. When Cutter showed up, Lucky Acres forked over the mineral rights under the Fowlers' home and 23 others and now reaps royalties from the well. That the city was also in on the deal was the final twist of the knife for the Fowlers and their neighbors.

"The city and the state unleashed these people on us and we have no way of protecting ourselves," says Fowler.

But city officials maintain that Cutter Oil would have simply enlisted mandatory pooling or moved the target zones of the wells in order to cut the city out of the deal — and they have a point. The city had flatly refused to lease any land for the Karen Lynne/West Mill well, and well owner M&M Royalty simply shifted the target zone and configured the unit to include amenable owners. The well went in. The citizens were still irate. And the city got nothing.

Although every Broadview Heights city official interviewed for this story expressed distaste for the wells, they also cited much-needed revenue from the Cutter wells and extras such as paving and retention-basin jobs that Cutter threw in to sweeten the deal.

"We're looking for improvements for the city," says Broadview Heights mayor Sam Alai. "Did we roll out the red carpet? Hell no."

"We have people that are getting the royalty rights that are just ecstatic," says councilman Roy Stewart. "They look at it totally differently than those who get nothing. It's a matter of the haves and the have-nots." Incidentally, Stewart's property was one of the Lucky Acres package. Hence, as a resident, Stewart had no choice in the well's installation, but as a councilman, he voted for it.

"The heartburn that I've had is that the people down on Ashley Road used to be my friends," says Stewart of Susan Fowler's neighborhood. "I am not their friend anymore. They blame me. They have every right to be upset and concerned about the future, but there's nothing we can do to stop [the wells]."

Maybe. The city's leased portions range from 10 to 60 percent of the units. Mandatory pooling of anything over 10 percent is unlikely to be granted. Cutter would probably have had to move those wells around and deal with a whole new set of participants had the city refused to lease any land. Either option would have been a difficult proposition for the bitterly contested Falls Lane Unit No. 1D well, for which the city leased 6.5 of the required 20 acres. Furthermore, the target zone and the wellhead are on city property. Circumventing that much involvement would have been a tall order.

The nodding pumpjack is about 100 feet from the closest home that's part of the royalty package; neighbors across the street are not. One homeowner's commentary is a "Don't Tread on Me" flag displayed upside-down and at half-mast.

"I lost sleep over the matter," says councilman George Stelmaschuk. "Half were vehemently telling me that this is their right, that they can do whatever they want as landowners and that the city should go along with them. A lot of the other people cited the environment and everything else."

In the end, Stelmaschuk, whose own home is near a prominent pumpjack, voted for the wells.

"The biggest downfall is these neighbors fighting," says assistant fire chief Fleming. He recalls a scene surrounding a minor spill from a well earlier this year. "People were screaming and calling me names. They became violent. We had to call the police. It's sad. You hear people say how they used to be great neighbors."

Things change, but Susan Fowler is likely to remain furious over the wellheads next to her home for a long time. She has a host of concerns about those holes in the ground and the process by which they are drilled, but what of the piping that goes underneath her property to the associated target zone?

Gas company representatives contend that the underground portions of wells are safe, born of tried and true technology. But the folks surrounding English Well No. 1 in Bainbridge Township would likely have a different opinion.

On December 15, 2007, Bainbridge residents Rick and Thelma Payne were thrown from their bed as an explosion rocked their home. The explosion was traced to natural gas leaking from a recently completed well. Nineteen homes were evacuated that day. Everyone eventually returned, except the Paynes. The damage to their house was so great it had to be torn down.

But the fallout continues. The gas had infiltrated area aquifers, and to this day the homes that used to draw water from those aquifers have to use water stored in large plastic tanks in their garages. And in January, the lawyers of Thrasher, Dinsmore & Dolan, representing a host of defendants, filed a 30-page complaint in the Geauga Country Court of Common Pleas against seven plaintiffs, first and foremost of which is the owner of English Well #1, Ohio Valley Energy — the same company that owns the well next to my house.

Many persons interviewed for this article asserted that Bainbridge incident was an isolated incident and that the vast majority of wells operate safely for years, so I asked the ODNR's chief of communications Cristie Wilt to quantify that by providing information about leaks, spills and accidents. Her response said the agency issued 928 "Notices of Violation" in 2008, but their current database system is unable to produce a running total of gas leaks. Manually tabulated data, she said, would not be available prior to my deadline. Then she referred me to OSHA and the Ohio EPA for additional information.

Regarding my inquiry about the agency's response to Kenneth Hanson's death, Wilt replied, "The unfortunate incident that occurred in Guernsey County is being investigated by OSHA, which is why ODNR is not providing details to the media/public."

Books could be written about this issue, with stories from the Youngstown area (where urban wells have been part of the landscape for years) to the tony enclaves of Gates Mills, where fire chief Tom Robinson has chronicled an 11-page "History of Gas Well Incidents in Gates Mills," only one of which occurred before 2006.

New drilling has slowed in Ohio, but that's most likely a result of the recession — it's expensive, and the price of natural gas has been flat. But that will change eventually, and drilling will come to more parts of Northeast Ohio.

"I have to work," says the gas company representative. "I have to make my living. I have to drill."


See this Scene&Heard blog post for more on Erin O'Brien's dealings with ODNR for this story.

More by Erin O'Brien

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