Mineral rights deal would allow natural gas shale drilling at Ohio exotic animal preserve


COLUMBUS, Ohio — The expected boom in natural gas drilling could extend to the Wilds, an outdoor exotic animal preserve established by a consortium of zoos in eastern Ohio.

And that prospect has sparked some concern from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium that operates the nearly 10,000-acre preserve.

Columbus-based American Electric Power leased mineral rights below the preserve to Anadarko Petroleum last year as part of an agreement that gave the Texas-based company access to 150,000 acres of AEP-owned mineral rights in eastern Ohio, The Columbus Dispatch reported Wednesday.

The preserve on reclaimed mine land has some traditional gas wells, but none that use the much-debated process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where chemical-laced water is blasted into shale to release natural gas. Environmental advocates have argued that spills and poorly designed wells can poison streams, groundwater and wildlife, while industry officials say they take safety measures to ensure that won't happen.

The Columbus Zoo knew talks were going on between the utility and the company, but was not aware the lease had been signed, said zoo CEO Dale Schmidt.

"Any time there is anything that goes on around the animals, we have concerns," he said.

Schmidt said that lights or noise from a 24-hour-a-day operation would need to be monitored as well as environmental concerns because the preserve is a breeding facility that needs a normal light sequence.

AEP and Anadarko have said that precautions will be taken to protect animals and visitors when any drilling begins. Anadarko also says that it has put up sound and light barriers around drill sites and reduced operating hours at rigs in some cases.

"We certainly recognize the unique environment and considerations that must be made in that area," said Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen.

The power company retains the right to approve all well locations, and "would not do anything that would be detrimental" to the Wilds, said AEP spokesman Pat Hemlepp.

Interest in Ohio's Utica shale has surged as drilling companies offer bonuses of $2,000 to $5,000 per acre to get landowners to sign leases and offer them annual royalty payments for any oil and gas the wells produce.

The lease terms for the area below the preserve were not disclosed, but financial statements AEP filed this year show it will receive about $15 million over the next seven years for leasing the mineral rights. The utility also will receive an unspecified amount in royalties.

The Wilds sits atop reclaimed strip-mine land that AEP donated for use as a wildlife park and research center.

None of the 127 shale-drilling permits the state has issued since 2009 is located within the Wilds, but records show the company has drilled one well and is drilling two more, all east of the Wilds.