LOS ANGELES, July 19 – Shale-gas fracking is sure to bring all kinds of changes to Ohio, according to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education. But what administrators and trustees at Ohio University are concerned about at the moment is who will control whether their land gets fracked.
The paper reports that in years past, individual boards of trustees, for the most part, controlled the land at the state’s colleges and universities. But a new law directs Ohio’s state institutions to inventory their parcels and determine whether gas companies can drill on them—with the state pushing the colleges to offer up their land.
So Ohio University finds itself caught between shale and a hard place, the Chronicle reported. On one side are state politics and the lure of petrodollars. On the other, are the university’s commitment to sustainability and the community’s opposition to “fracking,” the term that describes the way drillers break the rock to get at the gas.
In the shale-gas zone, which extends from New York to Ohio and West Virginia, Ohio University is not alone. Money is driving politics and policy, sometimes in ways that run against academe’s tendencies to move slowly and deliberately while adhering to academic ideals.
But colleges in the region—which are closely joined to the communities, economies, and land around them—are also vital players in the gas boom, the paper said. Some institutions hope to reap money from drilling on their lands or from new programs tailored for the burgeoning gas industry. Others are exploring new research opportunities.
Critics of the gas industry say some colleges are too cozy with it, while backers complain that other colleges harbor academics who try to stand in its way.
As the paper notes, it’s a sign of the activity and controversy surrounding the shale-gas boom that everyday Americans in several states refer offhandedly to once-obscure geological formations, like the gas-rich Marcellus Shale.
The deeper Utica Shale—also thought to be gas rich, in roughly the same area as the Marcellus—may someday be a household name, too, the Chronicle said.
For the past several years, landowners have entertained offers from gas companies wanting to drill.
Pennsylvania’s state colleges have for the most part refused such offers, at least so far, because the law wasn’t clear on whether the colleges could keep the money. Mansfield, California, Clarion, Indiana, and Slippery Rock Universities are all either atop the Marcellus Shale or on the edge of it.
The student association at California University of Pennsylvania, a private entity separate from the college, leased drilling rights on 67 acres that include sports facilities and student residences, but no drilling has started on the land.
State Rep. Matt Baker, a Republican representing the gas-rich Mansfield area, has now sponsored a bill that would allow Pennsylvania’s public colleges to keep the money that comes from drilling for gas on their land.
Sixty percent of the money would be kept by the college that leases its land to drillers, while 40% would be divided among other colleges in the state system, the paper reported.
Any money from drilling would have to be spent on energy-efficiency projects or a backlog of deferred maintenance, which stands at $2-billion systemwide, said Baker, who sits on the state system’s Board of Governors.
“If the money were just to go into the revenue stream, some thought that might be more vulnerable” to cuts by the legislature, Baker told the paper. “It just makes sense that now that Pennsylvania has one of the largest formations of natural gas that those revenues come back to benefit the universities in some way.”
However, drilling activity has recently shifted away from Baker’s Mansfield area to western Pennsylvania and Ohio because the market favors the “wet gas” found there.
“In Ohio, too, colleges are learning about the sometimes fickle and fleeting interest of gas companies,” the Chronicle said.
Several months ago, administrators at Hocking College were contemplating a deal from West Virginia-based Cunningham Energy that might have paid $3-million upfront and 16% on gas revenues that came out of the technical college’s 2,000 acres.
But that deal is off the table now. The state redrew its gas maps, removing Athens County, where Hocking sits, from the gas “play,” or area where gas is abundant.
The state geologist was fired shortly after the map came out, which led to speculation about whether the firing was linked to the map, the paper said.
Mike Brooks, chairman of Hocking’s Board of Trustees, is ready to talk if the gas companies come back to the area.
“If a lucrative deal presents itself, I would have no problem supporting one operation on our property,” he told the paper.
With state and federal money getting tighter, “this could be one way for us to secure our future without dramatically raising tuition,” Brooks said.
The college has had gas wells on its land for 30 years, and has offered programs in exploration and drilling along with them. Today the college takes 20% of the gas it uses for heating from the rocks underneath.
“We should explore this and understand fracking,” Brooks said, even though it’s a “dirty word” for some people.
To get a lesson on the risks, Brooks visited a gas-drilling site in Wetzel County, W.Va., where regulations were lax, he said, and land and waterways were polluted with fracking fluids. After seeing that, he said, “I would want to deal with a large company that has had a good track record of safety.”
See the full report at the Chronicle of Higher Education.
© Glamma Productions Inc. 2012