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Ohio House challenges Kasich on fracking state lands

Back-door option would ignore public and leasing laws

An Ohio House committee is considering a stealth effort to re-open Ohio public lands to oil and gas drilling.

Ohio Governor John Kasich had seemed to slam the door on the issue when he declared last year that he had changed his mind and would not implement a bill he approved in 2011 to open Ohio public lands to oil and gas drilling.

But the Ohio House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this week unveiled a bill paving an alternative route for the oil and gas industry to drill in state-owned spaces.

Included in Substitute House Bill 490 are provisions that would authorize the chief of the ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources (DOGRM) to force-pool most state-owned lands into oil and gas leases.  While state parks are not subject to the new bill, state forests, state wildlife areas, state university grounds, and other state lands could be leased under the proposal’s language.

The proposal would open the lands to oil and gas extraction through a backdoor legal option known as “unitization.”  On the books since 1964, Ohio’s unitization law (R.C. 1509.28) has recently been used by large oil and gas companies to force unwilling landowners into horizontal drilling leases.

As proposed, HB 490 would empower the DOGRM chief to side-step the state lands leasing system and related public participation requirements by allowing state lands to be unitized.

“Opening our public lands to fracking is bad policy; using forced-pooling to cut out the public and to override existing legal requirements is just bad form,” said Nathan Johnson, attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council.

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a controversial law (HB 133) in 2011 to open state lands to drilling. That law required the appointment of a leasing commission by the governor and the creation of rules to govern the leasing of public lands, including opportunity for public notice and comment.

Governor Kasich never appointed members of the leasing commission, and ODNR never promulgated rules for notice and comment and the leasing process.  As a result, state lands have remained largely closed to oil and gas leasing under that legislation.

That could change soon if the oil and gas industry has its way with the House Committee and General Assembly.