"The hot topic at the Statehouse has been language in the budget, which would grant pretty broad authority to the state to sign leases on state lands for drilling," Phillips said.
Horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short, involves sinking a vertical well thousands of feet into the ground, and then bending the well horizontally into layers of gas-filled shale. Once the concrete piping is in place, thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand are pumped into the wells, and then exploded into the shale formation. Cracks open in the shale, allowing natural gas to seep out, which is then pumped to the surface along with the wastewater and chemicals.
While the natural-gas boom has revitalized the economies of many rural communities in Pennsylvania and other states, while offering a viable domestic energy alternative, the process also has potential for serious environmental and aesthetic consequences. As the increased use of fracking moves west into Ohio, much of the debate, including in Athens County, involves how serious those hazards are.
Rep. Phillips mentioned House Bill 133, which would allow natural gas and oil drilling and extraction on state lands, including state parks. The bill, opposed by the House minority caucus (Democrats), passed in the House last Wednesday and a similar bill is currently in the state Senate. The House bill would not allow drilling in state preserves.
In other states and increasingly in Ohio, natural gas companies have been offering residents up to several thousand dollars per acre for oil and gas leases. But some who have signed the leases have reported illness due to the chemicals getting into their water supplies. In isolated instances, property owners in other states have reported their tap water catching fire due to chemicals infiltrating their wells.
"If people take what the industry offers when they show up on their doorsteps, they're not getting (a deal), even if (fracking) is something they want to do," Phillips said of the leases. "They're not getting as good a deal, and it's allowing a lot more profit to the company and less to the landowners."
Defenders of natural gas fracking have said the criticism is exaggerated or false, and that the chances of chemicals released in shale deposits infecting water supplies thousands of feet closer to the surface are small or none.
In fact, much of the concerns about fracking involve what happens with the wastewater and chemicals after it's pumped back to the surface. Some municipalities in Pennsylvania, for example, have pumped the tainted water through their sewage systems with little or no treatment.
Democratic House members introduced amendments to H.B. 133, including one that would not allow drilling in state lands (and Lake Erie) where tourism is important. That amendment was tabled, Phillips said.
"(This means) you can frack in places where 5 percent or more of revenue comes from tourism," she explained, noting that this includes Hocking County, where one out of seven jobs is based on tourism. The county's Hocking Hills State Park and the Hocking State Forest are popular tourist destinations.
Kip Rondy, a farmer and landowner near Amesville, echoed Phillips concerns, cautioning attendees about the price that comes with leasing out their land.
"First we sold our timber, then we lost our land, washed down the river, and then sold our coal and then we sold our gas," he said. "Are we any better for those schemes? Those things were not going to make us richer; did they make us rich? I argue not."
Rondy said he first discovered the perils of fracking when he lived in West Virginia in the 1980s. In his town, he recalled, tap water would light on fire, as a result of underground natural gas extraction, as a result of chemicals getting into the water table.
He said he knew a man who died of stomach cancer two years after the drillers moved to town; it was from drinking the water, he claimed.
Panelist Greg Howard, an engineer, spoke firsthand about his personal experience with drinking well water in areas with natural gas drilling.
"I tasted gas well water. It was way worse than ocean water; the heavy metals really come through," he said. "You have to wash your mouth (after)."
A few hours later, Howard recalled, he got sick.
"If you drink water with natural gas, it will make you throw up in a few hours," he said. "At least that's what it did for me."
Mary Beth Lohse, conservation chair for the event's sponsor, the Appalachian Group of the Sierra Club, said during the panel that she is most concerned about the high volume of toxic water that is used to drill and how deep the wells will be.
Gas companies use as much as 4 million gallons of water for one well, she said, but then claim that only 1 percent of it is petro-chemicals.
Doing the math, she added, "40,000 gallons of highly toxic stuff is a lot of stuff."
Panelists urged local landowners to keep track of fracking-related legislation currently moving through the General Assembly, and to also engage an attorney if natural gas companies come calling with lease proposals.