During a public forum Tuesday night on oil-and-gas "fracking" and what it could mean for Ohio University, OU faculty members and officials suggested that the university will proceed cautiously on the possible leasing of its land for drilling.
More than other public universities in Ohio, suggested Nicolette Dioguardi, associate director of OU's Legal Affairs office, OU is "blessed with a lot of vacant… state land."
This blessing has taken on a different color, however, with the passage last year of a state law regarding oil-and-gas drilling.
While trustee boards of state universities used to have sole authority to decide whether to lease campus land for drilling or any other purpose, Dioguardi said, "House Bill 133 kind of changed all that." OU is now working to respond to the new law's requirements, she said – though she added that there is a "window of opportunity" during which the university can act to try to protect its more valued lands from potential drilling.
Dioguardi and others spoke to an audience of about 100 people in OU's Baker Center, and afterwards fielded a few questions that audience members submitted in written form.
Ohio Sub. H.B. 133 created a state Oil and Gas Leasing Commission to oversee the leasing of any lands owned or controlled by state agencies – including state universities – for oil-and-gas exploration or drilling. The law created a new process for handling oil-and-gas leases, and a new board to oversee it.
Based on the law, OU, like other state agencies, must now produce an inventory of all its land holdings, and classify each parcel under one of four different categories, based on such factors as deed restrictions and the size of the property. (Horizontal fracking requires large tracts of land, and often, individual properties must be "pooled" to make drilling feasible.)
The legislation allows for any owner of mineral rights under a public university's campus to apply with the Oil and Gas Leasing Commission for a drilling lease. The commission will rule on the lease "nomination," weighing factors such as potential economic benefits; whether the drilling project is compatible with the current uses of the land; environmental impact; objections by the state agency that owns the land and by members of the public; and any other factors it deems relevant.
If the commission approves a lease, however, according to a bill analysis by the Ohio Legislative Service Commission, the new law "generally requires the state agency that owns or controls the parcel of land… to enter into a lease" with the highest bidder, as chosen by the commission.
Matt Warnock, an attorney with Columbus firm of Bricker & Eckler, suggested that an anticipated oil-and-gas drilling boom could create many jobs for the state. "It's everything from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs," he said. Whether for good or ill, however, Warnock said, "everybody is going to be touched by this… There are billions and billions of dollars at stake in Ohio."
Gregory Nadon, chair of OU's geology department, urged caution for those who think Athens County will see a huge upsurge in oil-and-gas drilling, with an accompanying flood of revenue.
Though Nadon admitted that the technical data that's publicly available is limited, he said that what he's seen so far leads him to believe that the county may be on the fringe of the Utica shale bed that's going to be heavily drilled. Prospects for making big money out of Utica oil and natural gas liquids "are much better further north," he said.
Nadon added, however, that a decision by a company to drill is a straightforward economic calculation – if the firm can make a profit by taking the oil and/or gas out of the ground, it will.
"It's all about price and cost," he said.
The geologist predicted that the initial drilling activity will take place in counties to the north of Athens, then move slowly southward in our direction. And, he said, the first time a company hits a "dry" or non-producing well in the southward migration, "they'll be done, and they won't come back."
Athens County, Nadon claimed, "is a high-risk zone for (energy companies). They don't really want to come here until they're forced to come here."
Natalie Kruse, an OU faculty member in environmental studies, talked about the water impacts of the horizontal hydraulic fracturing method, which will be used to access oil and gas from underground shale beds.
An important point to realize, she said, is that much of the water used in the process is essentially lost forever – either left underground, or injected as waste into underground wells for storage.
"Most of that water doesn't come back to the surface," Kruse said. She added that the amount of water used in a typical fracking operation would fill "about 10 Olympic-sized swimming pools."
Though the industry has been unwilling to share details of the chemicals used in fracking water, according to Kruse, it is thought to contain "a really long list of chemicals," some of them carcinogenic. If the process is done properly, she said, "you really shouldn't have groundwater pollution," because the shale beds being fracked are far beneath the water table. However, she added, leakage from faulty pipes and casings raises the possibility that such contamination may take place, and research suggests that many drilling units develop such problems over time.
OU journalism professor Bernhard Debatin said the risks of fracking are bigger than its proponents suggest, even if it's done flawlessly. When mistakes are made, he suggested, the dangers get even worse.
"We need to be very careful if we embark on this," Debatin warned.
Joe Adams, OU's associate vice president for risk management and safety, noted that "typically oil rigs are very dangerous locations," but suggested that fracking "can be conducted safely" with proper regulation.
event was one of a series of public forums held on OU's campuses statewide to
discuss H.B. 133 and its implications for the university.