Did State Geologist Larry Wickstrom, fired in early May from that position, get hoist from his own petard?
State personnel records and quotes in a recent Columbus Dispatch article suggest this might well be the case.
Before I elaborate, first a quick note about being "hoist from your own petard." It's a line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (which I thought had something to do with ballet tights. Wrong; it means being blown up by your own land-mine, more or less).
Anyway, back to my point…
The statewide media sprang – or maybe "lurched" is a more accurate verb – into action last Wednesday on the consequential story involving the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' removal of 29-year employee Wickstrom from his position heading up the agency's Division of Geological Survey.
The Athens NEWS broke the story almost a week earlier, in my June 7 "Wearing Thin" column. The next day, after we received ODNR personnel records on Wickstrom's removal, we posted on our website a news story that I reported and wrote with information from those records.
The story (or links to our story and column) started showing up on various drilling, landowner, trade and geology websites in the days after we came out with the story, with one Ohio newspaper, the Akron Beacon Journal, covering the development in a reporter's blog on Friday, June 8. They gave us credit for breaking the story.
Things finally started moving Wednesday night after the Associated Press reported the story and distributed it statewide. They also gave us credit for breaking the story, though in a particularly tacky move, the Athens Messenger removed any mention of The Athens NEWS' involvement before re-printing the AP story.
So why was the firing of this one state official such a big story?
Wickstrom's travails are consequential on a statewide basis since the former state geologist had been working closely on assessing, charting and mapping the ongoing Utica deep-shale play in Ohio. The oil and gas drilling boom is just getting started in eastern Ohio, and if authoritative predictions are correct, could eventually rival the Ohio River Valley's coal and steel eras in terms of economic and environmental consequences.
But Wickstrom's removal also is a very important story here in Athens County because of a controversial map that he co-authored. The map, unveiled by Wickstrom on March 16 at the Winter Meeting of the Ohio Oil & Gas Association, updated previous Ohio Geological Survey maps showing the likely prime areas for drilling in the Utica deep-shale play in Ohio.
This map had a particular impact in our area, since it shifted the southern borders of the core Utica play area north of Athens County. Whereas Athens had been well within the boundaries previously, we now were sitting a county or two to the south of the likely Utica play.
This had a big effect on efforts by oil and gas companies and brokers to lease mineral rights in Athens County, drastically reducing the amount of offered signing bonuses. Whether the companies used the map as a pretext for devaluing leasing rights, or their investors actually did get scared away, is an open question, though the effect was the same.
The new map was also a game-changer as far as the very bitter local debate over fracking. It gave critics and supporters a bit of breathing room to know that any potential deep-shale production hereabouts might not happen, or at the very least was a long ways off.
TWO MONTHS LATER, THE MAP played a key role when Wickstrom's higher-ups at the ODNR – or maybe even further up the ladder than that – decided he had to go.
Wickstrom's last personnel review by the ODNR listed several concerns about his job performance, and the first on the list dealt with the redrawn Utica shale 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" (emphasis mine).
In a June 14 story about Wickstrom's removal, the Columbus Dispatch asked ODNR Deputy Director Andy Ware what was meant in the personnel review by "outside scientific reviews." In response, Ware cited professor Robert Chase, chair of Marietta College's Department of Petroleum Engineering.
Later, after being told that Chase denied criticizing the map, Ware cited quotes by Chase in a May 6 Athens NEWS story. The quotes actually originated in an email interview with Chase on March 21. Asked about the redrawn Utica map, Chase wrote:
"My feeling all along is that the most southeastern part of Ohio is on the marginal end, at best, of the Utica-Point Pleasant shale play. However, until someone gets bold enough to drill something in the area, I don't think we can conclude there's nothing here."
That's the part that the Dispatch quoted from our May 6 story, though in the original email, Chase continued…
"If you look at slide 19 (of Wickstrom's most recent Utica study) you'll see there is only one core sampling point in all of Washington and Athens counties, and the total organic content (TOC) was 1.9 percent, which puts it in the good range, so there may be potential. But you'll note there just aren't any data points. So don't abandon the ship yet!"
However you read this, it's definitely a stretch for the ODNR's Ware to interpret Chase's remarks as criticism of Wickstrom. This is because when it came to the limitations of the redrawn map, Chase and Wickstrom were in complete agreement.
If anything, Wickstrom, in his own interview with The Athens NEWS (appearing in the same April 1 story where Chase's quote first appeared), was even firmer about his study's limitations.
Following are some highlights from that interview:
• Wickstrom emphasized that his agency "fully expects people to go outside that (Utica-Point Pleasant) core area and explore, and we hope they do."
• He said he agrees with an oil and gas expert at Marietta College (Chase), who March 21 said not to "abandon the ship" just yet on the oil and gas potential in the Athens area.
• "We know there's still oil to be found outside that core area" as shown in the maps published in the recent Utica shale update report, Wickstrom said. "By no means are we saying that if you cross this line (on the map) everything goes bad… It is not an absolute. Furthermore, as we develop additional data, those lines will change also."
• He acknowledged that his agency had very few oil and gas data points from Athens County.
• "Until someone drills a new well down there (in Athens County), we won't know for sure," Wickstrom said. "Drilling is the only thing that will tell us what's there… The oil and gas companies know better than we do how to base their decisions. They have their own data, from us and from their own wells that they never turned into us."
SO, IF WARE AND THE ODNR considered Chase's remarks about the redrawn Utica map as critical scientific reviews, they must have thought the same thing about Wickstrom's own opinion about his map.
To be fair, Ware, in the Dispatch story, does hint at the main problem with the new map, one that multiple observers (including myself) identified right after its release: Why release such a potentially consequential map when it's based on such spotty information from so many areas?
Ware told the Dispatch (paraphrased) "They need to develop a protocol that says X amount of data points would need to be obtained to be a valid scientific number to justify updating the map."
Finally, one particular aspect of Wickstrom's firing as state geologist remains puzzling. That's Deputy Director Ware's letter to another state official alerting him to Wickstrom's imminent firing, and outlining the qualities 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."
The line suggesting that Wickstrom was too closely connected to the industry should have been reported and explored by the Dispatch and Associated Press, but it didn't appear in any of their articles.
So what did Ware mean by that statement? Whom in the oil and gas industry was Wickstrom too closely connected to? Was the result of that too-close connection anything that might be considered unethical or illegal?
All along, I've felt that the Division of Geological Survey, and the ODNR by extension, have been too cozy with the oil and gas industry. Pages on the agency's website could easily be mistaken for an unapologetically pro-industry site.
That being the case, it would have been nice if the Columbus Dispatch, with its considerable resources and state government contacts, could dig deeper into Wickstrom's connections with industry. But I guess I won't hold my breath.