Questionable Fracking Leases in Athens County?

By Heather Cantino
(Board Chair, Buckeye Forest Council, and 30-year Athens County resident)

As the fracking boom is coming to Athens county, many landowners are wondering if it is advisable to lease their mineral rights to Cunningham Energy from Charleston, W.Va.,  for hydraulic fracturing. On Tuesday evening (Nov. 29), local attorney John Lavelle, who has already signed a lease with Cunningham Energy for his property in Waterloo and Lee Township, organized a meeting for landowners at the Athens County fairgrounds, where he presented a draft of a supposedly “landowner friendly” lease that landowners can use for a legal fee of $50 per acre if they wish to sell their mineral rights and use of land to  Cunningham Energy.

However, many Athens County residents are expressing concerns with the lease presented by Lavelle. The lease fails to address a number of crucial issues and holes in Ohio oil and gas regulations (see Ohio regulation and rule deficiencies). It also covers only a small amount of the conditions and clauses spelled out in the sample draft lease put forward by the Harvard Law School, known as An Ohio Landowner’s Guide to Hydraulic Fracturing. The Havard lease draft is considered a minimum standard for leasing mineral rights.

Prior to the event, over thirty landowners and residents gathered  to formulate questions before attending the leasing meeting. Athens resident Bernhard Debatin cited the work of Anthony Ingraffea, civil engineering professor at Cornell University, who has been studying well casings and the problem of cement failure (see also the earlier post Cement Casing: The Weak Link of Fracking).  Debatin pointed out that the myth of “no contamination,” frequently cited by the industry and fracking proponents, is based on a narrow definition of “fracking” as just the fracturing stage of the process rather than the whole procedure. He added that there are many instances of contamination of groundwater from the overall process. Some are the result of spills and explosions; some are from faulty well casings. Debatin stated, “We are seeing more and more evidence from all over the country that deep-level hydraulic fracturing can seriously contaminate people’s groundwater due to failing cement casing and spills. Special loopholes and the lack of effective oversight also allows the fracking industry to operate largely outside of water, air, and waste regulations. The consequences can be devastating for a whole region, no matter how ‘good’ a leasing contract seems to be.”

Nancy Pierce pointed out that the modified Cunningham lease presented by Mr. Lavelle allows the drill pad to be up to 20 acres in size.  She added that the lease does “not provide for disclosure of the chemicals used on site or for testing of the wastewater for radioactivity.” Also, the legally required personal and property liability insurance (at O.R.C. 1509.07) covers only one million dollars for  all rural wells owned by the company in Ohio.  “This amount is hugely inadequate for a process of such a risky nature with known and documented cases of including fires and explosions and spills of toxic chemicals or fuels causing water, soil or air contamination and personal injury,” she said.

To the great surprise of many attendees of the Lavelle meeting, Cunningham Energy acknowledged that they have no previous experience with horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Joe Blackhurst, the Cunningham representative at the Lavelle meeting stated that the company would team up with a joint venture partner to do the horizontal drilling. According to a report in the Athens Messenger, Blackhurst did not disclose the name of the joint venture partner nor whether Cunningam has worked with that partner before. Asked by a local resident if this wasn’t “kind of like not knowing who we’re doing business with?,” Blackhurst responded simply “you could take it that way.”

A question by Loraine McCosker about the time limitations for temporary storage ponds and what material would be used to line the storage ponds remained unanswered by Mr. Blackhurst.  Later, McCosker was approached by a Cunningham representative (“Tom”), who  said that this would “be treated as waste water and we would drink it again.” When told that this was incorrect and that the water would have to be injected into storage wells (ORC 1509.22), the representative called her “just ignorant.”

Others participants addressed water usage. According to the USEPA, each fracking procedure requires between two and ten million gallons of water. Since the Lavelle lease states that water will not be used from the landowner’s property, County residents questioned where this water would come from and how much truck traffic on township roads would be required for water delivery alone. Water withdrawals are not regulated by the state, which raises concerns about depleting drinking water resources.

One resident who did not attend the event sent questions to be raised: “What about shallow oil and gas wells within (above or near) the fracking zone that could contribute methane contamination to drinking water wells in the shallow aquifer if not properly closed prior to fracking? Who is responsible for locating and closing these prior to fracking? What about regular sampling of soil and surface water?

Addressing the possibility of requiring a closed loop system, she wrote, “Are vapor recovery units required during drilling and operation of wells? If so, is continual upgrading to best available vapor recovery technology, as it becomes available, required?”  She added, “Landowners should install security cameras before drilling starts so any unsavory practices can be caught on camera (and those practices WILL occur when landowners and regulators are not onsite).”

Ohio law does not prohibit venting and flaring during processing. USEPA’s 2011 Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study reports that volatile organic compounds returned with the gas “may include acetone, benzene, ammonia, ethylbenzene, phenol, toluene, and methyl chloride (NYSDEC, 2009)…. There have been numerous reports of changes in air quality from natural gas drilling.”

The New York Times reports: “Wyoming, for example, failed in 2009 to meet federal standards for air quality for the first time in its history partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from roughly 27,000 wells, the vast majority drilled in the past five years….In Texas, which now has about 93,000 natural-gas wells, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago, a hospital system in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling said in 2010 that it found a 25 percent asthma rate for young children, more than three times the state rate of about 7 percent.”

Other questions addressed the ability of landowners to get mortgages if their property or their neighbors’ property has drill pads on it. Mr. Lavelle responded that this was not his responsibility. He also stated that people should consult their realtor if they are concerned about loss of property value.

The so-called “landowner-friendly” Lavelle lease also permits open pits for flowback wastes. Poor construction and excessive rainfall are known to cause overflow, slippage, leaks and consequent ground and water contamination (see for photos of these impoundments). Fencing can not deter birds from visiting the pits.

Cate Matisi, landowner in Athens County for more than 19 years, stated of the meeting, “I believe that stewardship of my property requires me to refuse any practices in the extraction of its resources which carry the potential for serious environmental consequences.  I believe that there are healthier, more responsible solutions to our present energy problems than the current practice of hydraulic fracturing for shale gas and I encourage everyone to educate themselves about this topic. You might not own land but everyone breathes the air, drinks and uses the water and walks on the land, all of which have been negatively impacted with the current fracking technology in other parts of our country.”

Contact: Heather Cantino heather.cantino<at>


One response to “Questionable Fracking Leases in Athens County?

  1. Pingback: Land Owners Need to Be Careful What They Sign | Slow Down Fracking in Athens County (SD-FRAC)

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