Julie Carr Smyth
Columbus, Ohio — State parks aren’t just for hiking, camping and other recreation anymore. Increasingly, these lands are being used for oil and gas drilling as budget-strapped states seek new sources of revenue.
As they allow more energy exploration in state parks — in some cases by reversing previous bans — lawmakers are being met with resistance from environmentalists and park officials.
Opponents of the drilling say it raises troubling questions about acceptable uses of publicly shared land — even when new technology allows rigs positioned outside park boundaries to reach petroleum pockets deep beneath the parks by drilling horizontally.
Sean Logan, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said parks get 40 percent of their money from fees related to camping, boating, beach access and other recreational activities. If drilling affects the panoramas or the noise level, these other revenue sources could start suffering, he said.
Drilling is still barred in national parks. But the reversal of some state bans coincides with efforts to expand exploration in other previously off-limits locations: offshore in coastal states, near Aztec ruins in New Mexico and in some urban parks.
Arkansas has signed a lease allowing drilling to begin under Woolly Hollow State Park. Pennsylvania saw its first drilling on state park property this spring.
In July, a circuit court judge in West Virginia ruled against the state environmental protection agency’s attempt to block drilling under Chief Logan State Park. The first well in Living Desert Zoo and Gardens State Park in Carlsbad, N.M., was drilled in 2007.
The U.S. Geologic Survey monitors oil and gas activity nationally, though no organization tracks drilling that falls within the boundary of state parks, or how much oil and gas can be pulled from that land.
To drill, roughly two acres are cleared of trees and vegetation. Gravel roads are also required to access drilling masts about 120 feet high. Producers have in some cases put mufflers on machinery and reduced other noises, but there are still trucks and other related sounds.
Backers say that wellheads and nature trails can coexist, in part because of new technology reduces the environmental footprint of drilling operations.
In Ohio’s Salt Fork State Park, much of the work would be by directional drilling, a technique that involves entering the surface at one location, making an underground turn and tunneling sometimes for miles underground to reach oil or natural gas pockets.
“You probably wouldn’t even notice the drilling rigs. It’s very, very environmentally sensitive and, at the same time, would produce a huge amount of revenue,” said state Sen. Keith Faber, who is pushing a proposal to allow the first-ever drilling in Ohio state parks.
A state committee puts Ohio’s estimated take from new drilling as high as $5 million a year. Ohio, with 11 percent unemployment and among the worst foreclosure rates in the country, needs the cash to offset declining tax revenues.
Ohio is not alone.
According to the latest figures from the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state budgets face a combined $163 billion shortfall in fiscal year 2010 even after making billions in cuts.
The money from drilling won’t cure state shortfalls, but every office is being asked to find new revenue or face cuts, including parks.