Though it has not officially begun in Ashtabula County, “fracking”, a natural gas drilling process, is fraught with legal and environmental implications for local residents.
The intricacy of mineral rights contracts is one emerging issue for county property owners, a number of whom have been approached by landowner groups, oil company representatives and lawyers concerning leasing their land for fracking.
“We get a lot of calls every week (from property owners),” said Ashtabula County Commissioner Dan Claypool. He also said a recent visit to the Ashtabula County Recorder’s Office shows that a lot of new leases are being filed.
Other legal questions concerning mineral rights at different depths and the impact of a lease agreement on a financial lender are intriguing issues that Clarence Tussel, owner of two family businesses that drill for natural gas and maintain wells, believes are not yet resolved.
“There are times when you have to be patient,” said Tussel.
“Everybody’s situation is different those leases were put together so loosely,” Claypool said. “There are a lot of things going on and I would caution anybody to not to sign anything (without consulting an attorney),” he said.
He said many people working to secure leases for potential drilling are not involved in the oil and gas industry but are middlemen who don’t know that much about the particulars of the industry.
A further legal complexity is that of drilling leases that were signed in the late 1970s and early 1980s when natural gas was having a local boom. Most of the leases were thought to be permanent but some holders believe companies have not held up their end of the bargain and are questioning their validity.
Some property owners say small drilling companies have started to send royalty checks after long lapses, or fixing wells after ignoring them, and lease terms, for years.
“There are companies who are working hard to get their lease holds in order,” Tussel said.
Nate Paskey of the Ashtabula County Soil and Water District, agreed. “All of a sudden the (royalty) check will show up,” he said. “There will be legal (issues).”
Tussel said the details of lease agreements may not be what they appear to be on the surface. “You really need a good attorney,” he said.
“They (drillers) are paying you a lot of money per acre and they will minimize that (payment) by using various techniques,” Tussel said of clauses in the lease.
Another issue that is beginning to wind its way through governmental entities is environmental: how to handle waste from the fracking process.
Nathan Paskey, of the Ashtabula County Soil and Water District, said some problems that have occurred in other states are due to bad regulation of the industry. He said drilling in Pennsylvania has helped Ohio create safer and more stringent regulations.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas regulates the actual drilling process, Paskey said. In the fracking process, a drill cuts down vertically to the core of a bed of Utica shale, buried deep beneath the ground. Once the bed is reached, horizontal drilling using highly pressurized water and chemicals creates fissures that allow gas to be released from the shale. A “brine” is the waste product result of the water and chemicals used for the horizontal drilling.
Claypool and Tussel expressed concern that brine from New York and Pennsylvania is being transported to injection wells in Ashtabula County and pumped into the ground for disposal at the maximum rate of more than 1,000 barrels a day.
Claypool said he is concerned with taking of other state’s by products of the fracking process; especially with Ohio wells about to be dug. He said hearings are being held in Columbus to address the disposal of the brine and related issues.
Ohio has already freed some money into a difficult state budget for soil and water district employees to help oversee erosion settlement issues and the creation of ponds to store the five to six million gallons of water needed in the fracking process. “We will be able to provide the technical aspects of the ancillary gas industry,” Paskey said.