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Conservancy Group Offers Guidance in Backing Utica Development

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) is voicing support for Utica Shale development, including hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but it wants to see the industry, landowners and other stakeholders come to an agreement over developing the eastern Ohio portion of the play, the CEO said.

WRLC's Rich Cochran offered a 21-page position paper, "Uncommon Ground for the Common Good," as a guide at a public forum earlier this month.

"What has become abundantly clear is that economic opportunities for the industry and for many landowners are so large and so persuasive that it is nearly incomprehensible to expect anything other than massive exploration that will last for decades," Cochran said. "It is also clear that the people who have relied on their landscape for their livelihood will temporarily be able to rely on oil and gas revenues, creating an ominous dynamic."

Most people assume that since the WRLC is a land conservation organization, it is opposed to shale development and fracking, but the group is addressing the future pragmatically, hoping to guide development to a least worst result.

"Almost no one, and especially none of our employees and trustees, supports the destruction of essential natural resources, the contamination of our environment, the paving of our prime soils," Cochran reportedly told the audience at Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville, OH. "Still, we must actively prepare for the extensive shale exploration that is coming. The time for conserving our most important natural resources has never been more urgent than it is right now."

WRLC spokesman Kenneth Wood told NGI that the group's position "is to seek collaboration between industry and all of the stakeholders in eastern Ohio, not confrontation. We want everyone to come together and do what's best for the next 50 years, not the next five."

During its two years-plus of research, Cochran said the WRLC studied the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas and drew "some unconventional conclusions" in comparing it to the Utica, specifically that the former was "less concerned" about well pads, fracking and aquifer contamination.

Cochran said fracking "can cause major problems due to operator error, and yet this is very unlikely due to the size and capacity of all of the Utica Point Pleasant operators. Fracking does pose challenges and risks, and yet they seem to be well-known and they are well regulated in Ohio."

However, the group is concerned about haphazard and extensive infrastructure construction and a reduced appreciation for the land. "If the land of eastern Ohio is held in low economic esteem during a period of unprecedented development, we will have the worst possible situation," Cochran said. "When the oil and gas wells stop producing, the enduring assets like prime soils will no longer be available."

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