Don't drill in the parks

4/10/2011

Ohio's 74 state parks attract 50 million visits a year — more than four times the state's population. These visitors include families throughout Ohio that take advantage of the parks' recreational opportunities on land and water, sportsmen and sportswomen, and others who seek to appreciate our state's natural beauty.

They also include out-of-state tourists who contribute to a lucrative state travel industry. Such folks pay to stay in cabins, lodges, and campgrounds. Credible studies conclude that every dollar spent on tourism promotion in Ohio generates $12 in state and local tax revenue.

The parks are our inheritance from past generations of farsighted Ohioans, and our legacy to future generations. They are threatened by proposals in Gov. John Kasich's budget and legislation before the General Assembly that would authorize drilling for oil and natural gas in state parks and other protected public lands, including nature preserves, hunting areas, and scenic river access sites.

In exchange for uncertain, temporary — and possibly illusory — revenue, these plans would jeopardize Ohio's environment, its economy, and public safety for years to come. It shouldn't happen. State lands must remain off limits to drilling.

Advocates cite the state's projected $7.7 billion budget shortfall over two years, as well as the need to address a $560 million parks maintenance backlog. They say the state could collect $30 million a year in lease revenue and royalties by permitting drilling on state lands.

Such estimates are highly speculative. Because state parks account for less than 1 percent of Ohio's land area, the urgency of making them available for private exploitation is dubious. The time required to set up a drilling infrastructure and for the state to acquire mineral rights would ensure that any new revenue would not arrive quickly enough to help solve the state's current fiscal miseries.

The drilling proposal calls for a leasing board that would include oil and gas industry representatives named by the governor. In keeping with the Kasich administration's habitual contempt for transparency, bid data would be kept secret.

Drilling on some public lands would require the state to acquire land of comparable value to replace it. That is a potentially costly proposition.

In other parts of the country where drilling occurs on public lands, such operations have posed dangers to public safety as well as water quality and fish and wildlife habitat. "Fracking," a technique for extracting natural gas that uses fluids laden with industrial chemicals to fracture rock, has threatened groundwater in Pennsylvania and New York.

Fracking can produce wastewater that includes toxic substances. It can cause air pollution from heavy equipment and gas leaks. Road-building, stream crossings, pipeline construction, retention ponds, and land clearance for drilling and fracking can jeopardize habitat.

Noise pollution from rigs and compressors often accompanies drilling as well. Other risks include explosions, fires, and oil spills.

The Kasich administration has been vague about how it would regulate drilling on public lands. The state now has fewer than two dozen inspectors to monitor all drilling activities. It's hard to see how the nuisances — which could continue even after drilling ends — would be compatible with the conservation and enjoyment of public parks.

Two-thirds of Ohioans oppose drilling in state parks, according to a Columbus Dispatch poll. Lawmakers need to listen to their constituents, look for long-term revenue sources instead of risky quick fixes, and abandon this ill-conceived threat to the state's quality of life.