COLUMBUS -- A bill to open parks, forests, and other state lands to oil and natural gas exploration is headed for an Ohio House vote Wednesday.
Before sending House Bill 133 to the full chamber, a committee Tuesday rejected an attempt to restore language previously stripped from the bill that would have explicitly placed Lake Erie off limits.
"The protections in federal law are easily removed,'' Rep. Dennis Murray (D., Sandusky) said. "There are discussions about removing some of those, and I'm very concerned. The governor has indicated his support for banning drilling under Lake Erie. I think this is the opportune time to codify that in state law.''
Rep. David Hall (R., Killbuck), chairman of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, said lawmakers will get another chance to address the drilling question when they consider a bill to implement the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence River Basin Water Resources Compact ratified by eight states, two Canadian provinces, and Congress.
"What we've put in this bill … actually would put Lake Erie in a different classification of protection,'' Mr. Hall said. "I feel strongly that we already have the protection. I know our governor has stated he wants to keep that ban on drilling on there.''
The committee amended the bill to expand the language that, Mr. Hall said, should classify Lake Erie as property deemed unsuitable for drilling because of federal encumbrances and financial aid.
Republican Gov. Bob Taft's executive order placing an additional state barrier between drilling and the lake expired when he left office in early 2007. Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland didn't renew it, but pledged to do so if the federal government lifted its ban. His Republican successor, Gov. John Kasich, has taken a similar stance.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. John Adams (R., Sidney), did not defend the lake language. Last session, he introduced a bill that would have allowed natural gas drilling under Lake Erie.
"Canada is taking all our natural gas,'' he said. "I see no reason that we shouldn't be extracting natural gas from our lake. Canada has been doing it since 1965, but this bill cannot do anything about that because of the federal regulation.''
House Bill 133 is more stringent than language in the proposed two-year budget being debated in the Senate. Besides authorizing oil and gas drilling in state parks, forests, nature reserves, and public university and college property, the budget bill would expand timbering. Revenue generated would be used to fund park and forest operations at a time when state agencies expect to see major cuts in the next budget. But about two thirds of state-controlled land is not believed to be available for drilling because of deed restrictions and mineral rights issues.
Jack Shaner of the Ohio Environmental Council was unwilling to embrace House Bill 133 as a better alternative. "It's the guillotine versus the firing squad,'' he said. "Neither is better nor worse … Think of the irony here. If you go to a state park, you cannot even tack a clothesline to a tree. This bill gives a green light to drillers to cut their way through hill and dale to get that black gold.''