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AEP Retains Drilling Rights Under New Ohio State Park, Dispatch Reports

Pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California's Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield on June 12, 2017.
Brian Melley
Associated Press
Pumpjacks operating in the western edge of California's Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield on June 12, 2017.

Thousands of acres of the new Jesse Owens State Park in eastern Ohio may still be drilled for oil and natural gas.

A draft purchase agreement obtained by The Columbus Dispatch shows American Electric Power will retain subsurface rights to more than 31,000 acres it is selling to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for $47 million. The document states AEP will have continuing drilling rights.

AEP spokesman Scott Blake said no active horizontal drilling known as fracking is underway on the land. He said the power company would work with the state to coordinate that activity if the situation changes.

But Sarah Wickham, a spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Department, said the state is "reasonably certain" the property includes active wells.

"However, we are still in the process of identifying the exact acres we are purchasing," she said. "We will not be able to know specifically whether there are active wells on this property until survey and title work are completed."

The land is scheduled to be transferred in six installments beginning in March.

The property is part of what could eventually make up a nearly 60,000-acre state park in four Appalachian counties: Morgan, Muskingum, Noble and Guernsey. Two earlier purchases and an option on another 18,500 acres comprise the rest.

Former Gov. John Kasich announced the park in his 2018 State of the State address. It was named for Olympic star Jesse Owens in July 2018. The current governor, Mike DeWine, announced this latest purchase earlier this month.

Damian Sikora, chief legal counsel and ethics officer at ODNR, said AEP has agreed to work with the state to make sure any future drilling is in a location that "won't impact the recreation side of things or campgrounds or trails or things like that."

The Ohio Environmental Council's Nathan Johnson praised the purchase as "a huge victory for public lands — a sizable addition that Ohioans from across the political spectrum have been working hard to achieve for many years."

Johnson said the group plans to oppose any new fracking sites.

"Oil and gas development is not appropriate on public recreation land, and the OEC will advocate to oppose any new development," he said in an emailed statement.

State officials said this type of arrangement with AEP is not new. The estimated 10,000 acres purchased by the state two years ago from AEP has 58 oil-producing wells, records show. And AEP is not the only outside company to retain subsurface rights on land sold to the state.

Wickham said subsurface rights to many state-owned properties belong to others, often to many different people.

Cheryl Johncox, an organizer with the Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign for the Sierra Club based in Ohio, said that is important.

"Ohio is 47th in the nation for access to public land, so any new parks are a plus for us," she said. "This puts our new park in the same situation all of our other parks are in."