Gas, oil in parks could be gold mine for drillers


The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is known for its greenery, its trails, its wildlife, its ledges and its old canal locks.

The 32,950-acre federal park between Akron and Cleveland could become known for something new: more wells for natural gas and oil.

The boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is spilling over into eastern Ohio. The Cuyahoga Valley park is at the extreme western edge of the Marcellus formation.

But drillers are also eyeing the deeper Utica shale formation that covers the eastern half of Ohio.

The lure of millions of dollars in leases and royalties could put a giant bull’s-eye on the Cuyahoga Valley park, which is already the No. 3 national park in the eastern half of the nation for active wells.

”It’s a real concern,” said park spokeswoman Meg Plona, a biologist who oversees drilling in the Cuyahoga Valley park. ”It’s a new issue and a big issue, and it’s out there.”

Drillers could operate in and under the federal park because the National Park Service owns very little of the mineral rights in the park, officials said.

That means the owners of the mineral rights could sign leases with drillers. They would be subject to minimal federal regulations, but otherwise, there is little the park could do.

So far, park officials say, no drillers have expressed interest.

The park service owns about 18,768 acres in the park. The remaining 14,182 acres are owned by metro park districts and private interests and are out of federal control.

But the park service owns the mineral rights on only about 5 percent of those 18,768 acres, said Patrick O’Dell, a Colorado-based petroleum engineer with the park service.

Including the mineral rights would have significantly hiked land costs as the federal government

acquired property beginning in the 1970s, he said.

The same thing happened at other national parks, he said.

That means that perhaps as many as 32,000 acres in the Cuyahoga Valley park could be drilled: the 17,768 acres of federally owned land where the park service does not own mineral rights and the 14,182 acres of private land.

The only way to determine how much acreage in the park is potentially open for drilling would be to check federal land records in Omaha at the park service’s regional office or to check local land records, officials said.

”There are definitely private gas and oil rights available in Cuyahoga Valley and it is a concern to park management,” O’Dell said.

Risk ‘not assessed’

The park service has ”not assessed the risk to Cuyahoga Valley specifically in any detail,” he said.

Drillers, under existing federal rules, must use ”technologically feasible and least-damaging methods,” he said.

Park officials must also determine that drillers will not ”significantly injure federally owned or controlled lands,” under existing rules.

The prospect of drilling is unsettling to park users and volunteers.

”I’m very surprised and shocked that such a possibility could exist,” said Dave Burgan, 58, of Stow, a member of the Cuyahoga Valley Trails Council and an Adopt-a-Trail volunteer.

”I assumed — like I think most people do — that the Cuyahoga Valley was safe and protected. . . . And I’m very concerned to find out that it’s not.”

In late 2009, the park service issued a 26-page report that said 35 national park units in eastern Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Virginia, Maryland and Tennessee were vulnerable to Marcellus drilling.

Drilling for natural gas ”is an industrial activity with a host of environmental consequences,” the report says.

Issues include drilling and disposal of drilling fluids, reductions in stream flow and groundwater levels, degraded air quality from drilling rig engines and trucks, excessive dust, the impact on plants and animals, disruption of solitude, the impact on park cultural resources and safety concerns from added heavy truck traffic, the report says.

Marcellus drilling

One of the biggest concerns is that the Marcellus drilling could trigger installation of large number of wells to draw as much gas as possible from the geologic formation, the report says.

Over time, the wells probably will be allowed closer and closer to boost drilling economics, according to the park service report.

The document was designed to inform park personnel in the seven-state region of potential problems and was not intended to be the definitive document on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking, O’Dell said.

Horizontal drilling is the newest technique. A well is drilled vertically and then turns to run parallel to the surface. It may stretch about one mile.

Drillers also rely on hydraulic fracturing to free up maximum amounts of natural gas.

Large volumes of water, sand and some chemicals are pumped into the well under pressure to crack the rock and free more gas.

Some of that water is then pumped to the surface. It is laced with toxic chemicals, heavy metals and low levels of radioactivity from the underground rock.

Most problems cited with hydraulic fracturing are linked to spills and handling problems with the liquid. It must be disposed of safely. It may be recycled, or it may be treated.

In Pennsylvania, it can be discharged to streams.

In Ohio, it must be injected into underground rock formations for permanent storage.

Tightening rules

The park service is tightening its regulations on gas and oil drilling in parks to update rules that are 30 years old.

That plan includes:

  • Encouraging more horizontal or directional drilling from sites outside parks.
  • Requiring higher bonds on producers.
  • Tightening operating standards.
  • Allowing park superintendents to deal with minor drilling infractions.
  • Imposing fees for crossing federally owned land in parks.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

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