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Friday, June 8,2012

ODNR records shine light on state geologist's removal

Redrawn Utica map cited as one reason, close ties to shale industry another

By Terry Smith
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Photo Caption: This is a screen-shot from a YouTube video showing then state Geologist Larry Wickstrom reviewing a Utica play map in late 2011. At the time, the map showed Athens County well within the oil and wet gas deep-shale play. A subsequent updated map carved Athens County and adjoining counties out of the deep-shale core play area.

Ohio's top geologist got sacked at least partly because he publicly released a game-changing Utica deep-shale map and study without vetting his higher-ups, records obtained from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources confirm.

The personnel records, obtained after a public information request from The Athens NEWS, suggest that Ohio Geological Survey Chief Larry Wickstrom's higher-ups at the ODNR weren't pleased when the updated Utica study and map drew criticism from "outside scientific reviews."

They also noted that "numerous landowners across southern Ohio were concerned about how the map may be used to devalue potential future mineral rights leasing."

In addition, the documents indicate that ODNR officials felt Wickstrom had been less than objective in dealing with the ongoing deep-shale play in Ohio, and was too closely tied to the oil and gas industry.

Athens County and other southeast Ohio counties played a key role in this drama, after Wickstrom unveiled the study, "Geology and Activity Update of the Ohio Utica-Point Pleasant Play," March 16 at the Winter Meeting of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association (OOGA).

Maps included in the study, co-authored by Wickstrom, moved Athens, Washington, Meigs and other deep southeast Ohio counties outside of the "core play area" of the ongoing deep-shale drilling boom. It also excluded some formerly included counties in northeast Ohio.

Maps that Wickstrom had displayed previously included a much wider area, from north to south, likely to be conducive to wet gas and oil production, though it did extend the so-called "oil window" farther into central Ohio.

When he released the new map in March, Wickstrom stressed that it wasn't intended to be a final demarcation of the Utica oil and gas play, but rather the current analysis based on limited data. The carbon data is especially limited for Athens and adjoining southeast Ohio counties cut out of the previous map, the geologist acknowledged at the time.

Despite those qualifications, however, the new boundaries had a significant impact in those counties, with oil and gas companies and brokers claiming investment interest was drying up.

In Athens County, for instance, Cunningham Energy, which had offered sizable signing bonuses last fall, cited Wickstrom's redrawn map when it offered much-reduced leasing deals to local property owners. Other oil and gas brokers have been doing the same thing.

The cooling off of leasing interest in our area came despite various reports and developments suggesting that the big energy companies have more positive data about carbon resources here.

One of the bigger players, EnerVest Energy, put together a slide show last December, based on its own information and research, showing most of Athens County in the "wet gas" Utica play, and the northwest corner of the county in the "oil window."

In addition, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation is developing deep-shale wells just 30-35 miles to the north of Athens County, in Muskingum and Noble counties.

ASIDE FROM THE EFFECT ON OIL and gas leasing, the redrawn map showing Athens County outside of the core Utica play area turned down the volume on the very energetic local environmental debate over horizontal hydraulic fracturing ("fracking").

Based on the Geological Survey's redrawn map, many people concluded that Athens County no longer had to prepare for the sort of deep-shale drilling boom seen elsewhere.

A column that appeared in the June 7 Athens NEWS reported Wickstrom's firing as state geologist, and speculated about whether the redrawn Utica map had any bearing on it. Earlier in the week, The NEWS had requested public records from the ODNR pertaining to Wickstrom's termination.

On Friday, Charles D. Rowan of the ODNR's Office of Legal Services provided several documents in response to The NEWS' records request.

One of them is an "updated Wickstrom review" dated April 11 and signed by Andrew Ware, deputy director of the ODNR.

In the comments section, the reviewer writes, "Larry continues to fail in meeting clearly stated direction… to notify/involve the Director's Office in matters that would set or significantly impact state policy, and to follow explicit directions from the executive staff in how he administers the Division of Geological Survey."

The first example talks about the Utica map: "Larry developed a new map changing public perception about the shale play which he presented to the Ohio Oil & Gas Association annual meeting on March 16, and then did not share with ODNR administration until March 20. Outside scientific reviews of this new map question its accuracy, and numerous landowners across southern Ohio are concerned about how the map may be used to devalue potential future mineral rights leasing."

In another example, the reviewer notes that Wickstrom "did not notify ODNR administration until Jan. 17 that an earthquake in the Youngstown area had occurred (on Jan. 13)." That earthquake, tied to nearby deep injection wells for deep-shale drilling wastes, received national publicity.

The review cites two more examples of what ODNR officials felt were cases of Wickstrom not communicating sufficiently with higher-ups or other ODNR divisions.

An email contained in the records request response adds some context to Wickstrom's removal as state geologist. Deputy Director Ware, in informing a colleague that Wickstrom would be fired, enumerates attributes the ODNR will seek in a new state geologist.

"It is imperative that the Director, the public and the shale industry are all provided the best scientific information possible. We need an objective expert who is not so closely connected to the industry, who will build bridges and communicate well with other divisions within DNR, provide geological advice equally to all, and who will keep us fully informed of all decision-making within the Division of Geological Survey," Ware wrote.

Though the public records don't mention the Gov. John Kasich administration, it seems unlikely that top-level ODNR officials would remove such a highly positioned official as the state geologist - working directly on such a critical statewide issue as the deep-shale oil-and-gas play - without input, counsel or pressure from the Kasich administration.

Last Monday, The NEWS asked Wickstrom about his departure from the Division of Geological Survey, a year shy of his 30 years with the agency. Wickstrom said he wasn't ready to discuss his exit from the agency.

"I'm just preparing for retirement," he said. (He is still employed by the ODRN, just not as director.)

Wickstrom declined to say whether his being sacked as state geologist had anything to do with the redrawn Utica map or his statements about it. "It wasn't any one thing," he said.

In an email to selected colleagues and contacts on May 21, however, Wickstrom briefly expressed his take on his removal as state geologist: "I guess the best way to put it is that I have a different vision of what a state geological survey should do than the current ODNR administration."

Asked earlier this week about Wickstrom's departure, Bethany McCorkle, deputy chief of communications with the ODNR, issued a prepared statement from ODNR Director James Zehringer. He announced a national search for Wickstrom's replacement, and thanked him for his service.

On Friday, The NEWS asked McCorkle whether concerns about the redrawn Utica map and study, as expressed in Wickstrom's personnel review, would result in it being pulled from the ODNR website.

McCorkle said the agency isn't considering removing the most recent Utica map or study from the Division of Geological Survey website. "I am certain that once a new state geologist is appointed, that individual will probably evaluate that data, with current data," she said. "If a new conclusion is reached, (ODNR) Director Zehringer will take it under consideration."

She downplayed the idea that the redrawn Utica play map is somehow in error. "Scientific debate regarding the findings of the shale map is not uncommon and certainly not unexpected," she said. "As Mr. Wickstrom said at the time of its release, the information was based on his best analysis in light of available data… Again, the shale map is the agency's best analysis using existing information. It will be updated when new data becomes available."


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