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Conservancy Group Advocating Cooperation in Utica Shale

The head of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy (WRLC) said the organization is not opposed to Utica Shale development and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but wants to see the industry, landowners and other stakeholders come to an agreement over developing eastern Ohio's portion of the play.

Rich Cochran, who serves as president and CEO of the WRLC, used a 21-page position paper called "Uncommon Ground for the Common Good" as a guide for comments he made on July 10 at a public forum on the Utica.

"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's Shale Daily on Monday 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."

Cochran said the WRLC had studied the portion of the Utica in eastern Ohio for more than two years, comparing it to the development schedule of the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas that was about five years ahead of the Utica. Their findings made the group "both alarmed and hopeful" for the future.

"[We are] alarmed because the fundamental environmental qualities of eastern Ohio, what we term natural assets or natural endowments that provide for millions of people, are going to be rapidly and chaotically developed in a frenzy of oil and gas production," Cochran said. "[We are] alarmed because we know that people often do not understand the value of something until it is gone...

"And yet we are hopeful that thoughtful, collaborative action can lead to a collective effort to preserve our natural assets that give rise to both economic and environmental prosperity. We are hopeful that by adapting to forces of change we can ensure that our great grandchildren will have a healthy place to live, work and play, long after the well pads and the drilling rigs are gone."

Cochran said research indicates that oil and gas companies could invest more than $50 billion in Ohio's portion of the Utica Shale, to cover drilling, production and infrastructure costs.

During their more than two years of research, Cochran said the WRLC studied the Eagle Ford Shale in south Texas and found that both "are eerily similar."

"They are both surrounded by metropolitan regions and yet they are primarily rural in the core of the exploration areas," Cochran said. "They both have dry gas, wet gas and oil windows, stacked one on top of the next in a south to northeast orientation...And yet there is one big difference: south Texas is dry, shrubby and not nearly as sensitive or as valuable from a soil and water standpoint as eastern Ohio's landscape.

"We have studied the Eagle Ford because the development of the oilfield is about five years ahead of our region; we can see into the future by observing the Eagle Ford. What one learns is that the surface impacts are dramatic and happen quickly. These impacts make little difference in the Eagle Ford, [but] in the Utica they do."

Cochran said the WRLC has "drawn some unconventional conclusions" about the comparison between the Eagle Ford and the Utica, specifically that it was "less concerned" about well pads, fracking and aquifer contamination.

On fracking, Cochran said the practice "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."

But Cochran said his group was concerned about haphazard and extensive construction of infrastructure, and a reduced appreciation for the land.

"The people of Eastern Ohio have depended on the land for many generations," Cochran said. "But it is possible that with the sudden riches from oil and gas development, there will be less overall awareness of the essential quality of a healthy landscape.

"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. When the oil and gas wells stop producing, the enduring assets like prime soils will no longer be available."

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