State officials still don't want you to have a say over drilling in your city

In 2004, the Ohio legislature stripped cities of the power to regulate gas and oil drilling within their borders and gave it to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR). Little noticed at the time, the law has proven increasingly controversial, as drilling has spread from rural to exurban and even suburban communities (see Scene's "Drill Baby Drill," September 30).

State Senator Tom Niehaus's (R-14) senate bill 165 would update to the state's gas- and oil-well regulations. A regular recipient of campaign contributions from the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, Niehaus has garnered stalwart ODNR support for the bill, which does not return power to municipalities but focuses on details like increasing the setback minimum for wellheads to property lines from 75 feet to 150.

Meanwhile, State Senator Tim Grendell (R-18) is pushing legislation that would push that setback to 1,000 feet and reinstate local jurisdiction, to no avail. He is vowing to fight to the bitter end for amendments to the Niehaus bill, saying, "We owe it to the people to keep trying."

But if a recent meeting in North Royalton meeting is any indication, Grendell has an uphill battle, at least with ODNR, regardless of how popular these measures might be with worried homeowners.

On December 3, approximately 75 residents and area officials converged on North Royalton High School for a town-hall meeting. Ohio Representative Matt Patten (D-18) of Strongsville sponsored the meeting, which was run by ODNR officials, including director Sean Logan.

Logan called SB 165 "the most significant regulatory update for drilling rules since 1969." The bill would add 16 field inspectors to the state's pool of 19 and increase the current 21-day permit approval period to 30 days, which, said Logan, would allow more time to conduct onsite meetings with local representatives.

Nine whole days and 75 more feet between a gas well and your barbeque grill? Most audience members regarded this with set jaws and crossed arms.

"We would not permit something if it was not safe," said Logan. That comment was met with a round of snorts and guffaws. He added, "Safety is paramount."

"Right," said one resident with disdain. "Just be honest," said another.

Residents complained about poor landscaping, oil trucks racing down otherwise quiet streets and declining property values. Logan advised residents to be savvy negotiators with drilling companies and to hire lawyers. He said the ODNR had no traffic jurisdiction.

Scene asked Logan about a deadly hydrogen sulfide accident in Guernsey County last September. What had happened? What was the ODNR doing to prevent this sort of accident occurring in the future?

At first, Logan downplayed the accident, saying it happened all the way down in Guernsey County and that this audience probably wouldn't be interested in hearing about it. "We'd like to hear," said an audience member amid murmurs of agreement.

Logan claimed to have limited knowledge about the incident. He turned the floor over to ODNR deputy chief Scott Kell, who said that while adjusting an environmental liner at the site, Kenneth Hanson, a worker with Chipco Gas and Oil Services out of Zanesville, made a "bad decision" and subjected himself to a highly concentrated bubble of hydrogen sulfide.

"It appears one of the workers lapsed in judgment, thinking it was the right thing to do," said Kell. "And it was a fatal decision." He added that the "employee was not carrying a monitor," although the well was in an area known to harbor hydrogen sulfide. Hanson did not survive. Another man was critically injured, but was expected to make a full recovery.

Antrim Fire Chief Don Warnock was the first responder on the scene. Contacted after the meeting, he reported that neither Hanson nor the other worker he pulled from the scene was wearing an air pack. He said there were no ODNR personnel onsite.

Corroborating that story is all but impossible. Chipco representatives won't talk about the event. Chief Warnock was happy to answer questions but didn't know what happened prior to his arrival when the men were already down.

LAPSED JUDGMENT? Negotiate? Hire an attorney? Consciously or not, ODNR reps respond to tough questions by blaming the victims.

They did say that SB 165 would require beefed-up concrete casings on all wells, regardless of whether or not they are within known hydrogen sulfide areas. Future procedures would be done with fluid to further suppress gas leaks. The well in Guernsey County, they said, was installed years ago before any safeguards were in place. When asked about hydrogen sulfide monitors, Logan said they are unnecessary if construction is done properly.

He called proposals in SB 165 preventative measures, like "putting a fence at the top of the cliff instead of a net at the bottom."

SB 165, however, would not further limit the number of wellheads on a property, which — courtesy of a process called directional drilling — can turn a wooded lot in a residential neighborhood into an oil field. Current legislation also allows drillers to include any acreage in a well's unit (usually 20 acres) as long as it abuts another property in the unit. Uncooperative residents are simply circumvented. Hence, homeowners 300 feet from a well may get no royalties, while others a half-mile away are in on the pool. Resulting plots of well units are clearly gerrymandered to include amenable owners. So how does a resident negotiate with a system that easily excludes them?

Logan said SB 165 will require more "compact" units but had no additional details. "We will define 'compact' in the rule-making process," he said. "Is that a good answer?"

One man asked about mandatory pooling. Logan explained that mandating a property owner to be included in a well unit prevents a minority stakeholder from stopping the majority from drilling their well. Residents can protest the mandate in front of the Technical Advisory Council, which is composed of eight members — six of whom are oil and gas industry representatives.

Logan admitted that some drillers were abusing the mandatory pooling option and that SB 165 will put a $5,000 fee on mandatory pooling permits and allow only five such permits per driller annually — unless the Technical Advisory Council advises that more should be granted.

Some residents spoke in favor of the wells and said others should be proud to have them in their neighborhoods. One man got choked up when he described how his children will inherit his property, his well and the associated royalties. At the end of the night, however, doubt prevailed about how significant the local impact of SB 165 will be.

One disgusted resident summed it up. "We have zoning against clotheslines," she said. "But not gas wells."

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