A good portion of Northeast Ohio sits on a huge supply of natural gas that drillers have been tapping for more than a century. But, in recent years, as the boundaries between urban and rural fade, oil and gas wells have been edging closer to densely populated areas. And some local residents complain that they are powerless to stop them. ideastream®'s David C. Barnett has more.
As Todd Zedak tools his hefty Toyota SUV along a main drag in Hudson, he says no one is going to mistake him for a "tree hugger". He likes his big car, and he likes his hometown --- an upscale community that prides itself in maintaining an historic look that dates back two hundred years.
TODD ZEDAK: Hudson had three to four thousand people when I first moved here, forty some odd years ago. Today the population's about 20,000. Much of what used to be the fields and the forests and marsh and swamp are now housing developments. … Pardon me, here's the high school.
Zedak pulls his car in front of a fenced-in enclosure that sits in the middle of the Hudson High School parking lot. It's about 10-foot by 10-foot, with barbed wire across the top. Inside is a handful of pipes coming out of the ground and going back into the ground. This is a natural gas well --- the storm fence has been camouflaged, so you can't see inside, but it's a functioning pump that pulls pressurized gas from 4000 feet below the ground --- one of a couple hundred that can be found throughout the city. Most of them are in secluded areas, but Todd Zedak's wife Pam says they're getting closer to the city center.
PAM ZEDAK: The wells that have gone in in Hudson recently in the downtown village area have been a surprise to a lot of folks. I think on an issue like this, there probably should have been more discussion about it. I would have liked to have had a town hall on this topic before wells actually went in.
For the Zedaks, the concern is that this installation sits near playing fields and areas where children gather. Some citizens point to an explosion that knocked a house in Bainbridge off of its foundation a couple years ago, due to a well that was improperly capped. A couple days later, local oil and gas producer Bill Kinney pulls his big Ford pick-up alongside the Hudson high school gas pump with a different perspective.
BILL KINNEY: Anecdotally, we can always come up with stories or incidents that show the worst things happening.
Kinney's the owner of Twinsburg-based Summit Petroleum, but he's also a longtime Hudson resident. He notes that the school gets free gas from the well as well as a cut of the profits. But, he emphasizes that safety is one of his primary concerns
BILL KINNEY: If I thought there was a huge risk putting in an oil and gas well, I wouldn't be doing it. We have the technology that can handle it. That's why we can have electric lines in the walls of our houses, we can have gas lines coming up through our basements, and we aren't worried about that.
What does worry a number of residents in Hudson and other nearby communities is the fact that such wells can be installed with little or no public notice. Ken Messinger-Rapport is the law director for the Northeast Ohio Gas Accountability Project, also known as NEOGAP. He says, in 2004, the permitting of oil and gas wells was taken away from individual cities and centralized under the purview of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
KEN MESSINGER-RAPPORT: After that point in time, cities weren't able to regulate the placement or even the permitting of oil and gas wells within their local jurisdictions. This has allowed oil and gas wells very close to residential areas. Under prior law, that would not have been permitted.
Sean Logan, who heads the Ohio Department of Natural Resources sees it differently. He says the changes five years ago came because some cities were unfairly restricting where wells could be placed on private property.
SEAN LOGAN: And so, the legislature in '04 decided to change that, and not allow local set-back rules to dictate to a state regulatory program that has a very good track record of over 65,000 active wells right now in Ohio, and frankly a natural resource that is an economic competitive advantage for Ohio.
Industry-funded research claims that oil and gas generates over three billion-dollars-worth of sales for the state, each year. Ohio's oil and gas drilling rules are currently under review in Columbus. Lawmakers have heard from Natural Resources director Sean Logan, producers like Bill Kinney, activists like NEOGAP, and a number of city officials from around the state --- all of whom have made suggestions on how to modify the law. Bill Kinney says he's in favor of changing the rules, witihin reason.
BILL KINNEY: I don't think that every well that could be drilled should be drilled. But, there are places where oil and gas wells can be drilled, and done reasonably.
With most of the state's 65,000 oil and gas wells pumping away in rural areas, Hudson's Pam Zedak worries that lawmakers in Central and Southern Ohio will have little sympathy for the concerns of those who live in the more urbanized North.
PAM ZEDAK: Unfortunately, this is an issue that only affects Northeast Ohio, really, so that makes it a challenge in terms of getting the support to make it right.
Debate over the exact definition of "making it right" will probably be underway in the statehouse over the next few months, with a decision on revising the existing law coming early next year.