Photo Caption: State Sen. Troy Balderson speaks to the Athens County Republican Party's annual fall dinner Thursday.
State Sen. Troy Balderson talked up the economic opportunities of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil during his keynote speech at the Athens County Republican Party dinner Thursday night in Athens.
Balderson, a Republican from Zanesville, also said that his understanding is that the health and environmental risks from so-called "fracking" have been largely exaggerated.
Following the resignation of former state Sen. Jimmy Stewart, R-Albany, Balderson was appointed to take over the reigns of Ohio's 20th Senate District, which includes Athens County. He has been appointed to serve as vice-chairman of the Senate Energy and Public Utilities Committee, as well as to serve on the Senate Health, Human Services and Aging Committee among several others. (After redistricting, Balderson will no longer be in the Senate District that includes Athens; see related story in this issue.)
"It's going to be a good thing," he said Thursday night about increased oil and gas drilling in Ohio. "I know everyone's really scared about it. I know there's a lot of talk. There are going to be hiccups. Humans will be running this equipment. There will be hiccups. That's life."
A boom in drilling is beginning to spread into eastern Ohio, with landowners there being offered big money for drilling rights. The Marcellus shale layer, which up to now has been the primary target for fracking in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, doesn't come as far west as Athens County to any valuable extent, but the deeper Utica shale layer does underlie the county.
(Experts have stated that while the Utica layer underlying our area has potential for oil and gas development, its practical value is still largely unknown, which explains why oil and gas companies have been reluctant to offer the sky-high lease and royalty amounts offered farther north.)
The boom is based largely on the horizontal fracturing technique, in which a company drills down vertically till it hits the targeted shale bed, then drills horizontally into the shale. The drillers then inject pressurized liquid (which may contain toxic chemicals) into the shale to force the oil and/or natural gas to the surface.
Concerns about fracking include worries that the toxic liquid that's mixed with water may end up contaminating water supplies, and that the process of storing and transporting the millions of gallons of waste fluid associated with each fracking well can also lead to adverse affects on local water supplies.
Balderson said the state is working hard to understand the issue and make sure that everything is done properly to ensure health and environmental safety as well as economic success.
"The economic impact is going to be huge," he said. "It's going to do so much for this region."
He warned, however, that the positive economic impacts will not come right away but will instead take a couple years to manifest. He predicted that it will take until 2013 for solid economic benefits to take hold.
Balderson's biggest concern, he said, is making sure that local workers and residents get as much opportunity as possible to take advantage of the situation. He cited a number of opportunities for locals to make money, even pointing to so-called "rig-maids" who provide everyday services such as cooking, cleaning and laundry for workers on the drilling rigs.
As for the concerns about water supplies, Balderson said that the drilling occurs much too deep for it to have an impact on water resources several thousand feet closer to the surface.
"It's miles down," he said. "I want people to understand that there is going to be human error. Will it affect water? I don't see that happening. From all the information I've been given, it won't be a water issue."
Much of the concern about water supplies, however, involves what happens to the wastewater after it's brought to the surface.
As for other environmental impacts on drilling, Balderson pointed to his passion for mountain biking as for why trees and wilderness are important to him on a personal level.
"I want them to leave it the way they found it," he said. "And sometimes, like old coal mines, they make it better than how they found it."
Athens County Republican Party Chair Pete Couladis spoke at the dinner about the situation here in Athens County, with a number of local residents urging Athens City Council to formulate anti-fracking regulations for the city.
"In the People's Republic of Athens, there's pretty much only one point of view down here from the environmental crazies who are going nuts right now," he said. "They're going nuts over this drilling. Somebody needs to tell them that this has been done in this county for 50 years. But it doesn't seem to sink in."
Couladis blamed activists coming into Athens from out of town and agitating against drilling.
"They get them all agitated about how children are going to die and water is going to be burning like that movie, 'Gasland,' which I understand was not really due to oil and gas drilling; it just happened naturally; gas got into its water supply," he said. "In the area of tolerance and diversity, these people aren't very tolerant, especially when you have a different point of view."
Also speaking at the dinner was Republican U.S. Senate candidate in the state of Ohio, Eric Lamont Gregory.
He focused most of his remarks on urging Republicans to vote yes on the three issues on the November ballot.
The first issue deals with age-limits for judges and the powers of the governor in appointing members of the state Supreme Court commission. The second issue is an up-or-down vote on Senate Bill 5, which limits collective-bargaining rights for public employees. Issue 3 is known as the "health-care freedom" amendment and fights back against mandates on individuals to obtain health insurance in the Affordable Care Act, often derisively called "Obamacare" by opponents.
"Issue 1 must be won; Issue 2 is for you; Issue 3 is a vote for liberty," Gregory led the crowd in chanting.