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Friday, May 27, 2011

House Passes Bill to Drill in Parks

- House Passes Bill to Drill in Parks

Friday, May 27, 2011
The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio
by Jim Siegel

With Ohio facing $500 million in backlogged capital projects at its state parks and gas prices still flirting with $4 a gallon, House Republicans say now is the time to allow oil and gas drilling in parks and other state-owned land.

After a three-hour debate, the House voted 54-41 yesterday for a bill that would create an Oil and Gas Leasing Commission to oversee the leasing of state-owned land for oil and gas drilling.

"It will not solve Ohio's problems or energy-price problems, but it is a component we cannot ignore," said Rep. John Adams, R-Sidney, the bill sponsor.

Republicans said House Bill 133 would create jobs and help lower energy prices. Oil and gas drillers are particularly interested in southeastern Ohio and Salt Fork State Park.

"If this gas boom takes off like we understand it is, there aren't going to be enough hotels. There aren't going to be enough houses. There aren't going to be enough restaurants to handle all of the people who are coming into this state," said Rep. Matt Huffman, R-Lima.

Two Republicans joined all Democrats in voting against the bill. Franklin County lawmakers broke along party lines.

Democrats argued that with 99.5 percent of Ohio already available for drilling, the bill is unnecessary. They also questioned the economic benefits, and argued it would cause significant damage to state parks, hurt tourism and harm the economy.

"We're not against drilling. We're against drilling in parks," said Rep. Robert F. Hagan, D-Youngstown, who went on to question whether Republicans were on drugs.

Democrats also suggested Republicans would face voter backlash over the bill in next year's elections. In response, Speaker William G. Batchelder, R-Medina, pointed to gas prices.

"I would say that causes people to have a different view than they might have at $2.50," he said.

Batchelder said the ongoing revenue stream for capital projects at Ohio parks is vital. "When you look at them, you can see it," he said of the lack of upkeep. "I think six members used the phrase 'pristine parks.' I don't know where they're going. I have not seen those."

State revenue estimates from oil and gas royalties range from a few hundred thousand dollars to about $9million, depending on factors such as the level of oil and gas production and market prices, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission.

The bill divides state land into four classes, which, Adams said, will deal with issues related to federal encumbrances or deed restrictions. Energy companies would have the greatest access to land in which the state clearly owns all the development rights.

Ohio owns the mineral rights to 34,590 acres in state parks, less than one-third of the land.

Republicans added an amendment yesterday that would ban drilling on state nature preserves, which Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council called a positive step. But he strongly opposes the bill.

"Ohio has always promised that its parks would remain a natural park, not an industrial park," he said, adding that the new leasing commission would be "too industry-cozy." He said the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources should have the final say on whether drilling is allowed in state parks.

Tracy Sabetta of the National Wildlife Federation of Ohio said she is concerned that the bill does not explicitly exempt Lake Erie from drilling. While a federal ban remains in place, there are efforts to repeal it, she said.

Rep. Dave Hall, R-Killbuck, said the bill essentially bans Lake Erie from drilling because of the way it is classified.

Gov. John Kasich's proposed state budget also would open state parks to drilling, but it left the Ohio Department of Natural Resources in control of the leasing process.

Both Hall and Batchelder said they prefer the House drilling language to what is in the budget. Laura Jones, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the office is "pleased with how our concerns (with the bill) have been addressed."

"It's very positive that the landholding agency is the entity entering into the lease as opposed to the commission," she said.

Copyright (c) 2011, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio

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