Columbus — Should developed state parkland be thrown open to drilling for oil and natural gas?

Ohio House Republican lawmakers are considering that option in behind-the-scenes discussions on a comprehensive energy policy bill.

“We certainly have a lot of people that think we should have drilling on the state parklands,” said Scott Borgemenke, Republican House Speaker Jon Husted’s chief of staff. “I think there is a strong enough interest that people are going to seriously consider it.”

Lawmakers think drilling could produce low cost energy as well as steady income for state coffers.

If House Republicans move forward with the measure, they may not encounter much resistance from Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. In a recent interview, Strickland left the door open when asked whether he supported drilling on state parklands.

“It all depends. I understand that some of the land is not pristine,” said Strickland. “My attitude is that it would depend on the area and the location and the prior use. I would not want to take a flat approach on it. I’d like to look at it from a common sense point of view.”

The provision under discussion would allow drilling only on state lands “covered by concrete, asphalt, gravel, turf, crops or fields that have plants or trees not exceeding 10 years in growth.” The bill would create a five-member Oil and Gas Leasing board to oversee the leasing of state property for developing oil and natural gas reserves.

The policy director for the Ohio Environmental Council said his group is vehemently opposed to expanded drilling.

“Does this mean oil and gas drilling rigs next to the campground check-in? Over next to the concession stand?” asked the OEC’s Jack Shaner. “Somebody needs to think this through a little better.”

The drilling provision is part of House Bill 357, an alternative energy bill in the House Alternative Energy Committee. Drilling on state parklands was briefly considered two years ago and dropped by lawmakers.

The committee chairman, State Rep. Jim McGregor, a Columbus-area Republican, said recently that the drilling provision as well as an alternative energy portfolio standard in H.B. 357 will likely be folded into Senate Bill 221, the comprehensive energy regulation bill undergoing hearings in the House after clearing the Senate.

“I don’t think a decision has been made on that, although I think every indication is that is what is probably going to happen,” said McGregor. “It makes excellent sense to me to roll all the measures we can into the Senate bill from the House bill.”

The energy legislation, proposed by Strickland, would require that by 2025 Ohio utilities get 12.5 percent of the power they sell from advanced energy sources such as clean-coal power plants, as well as another 12.5 percent from renewable sources like solar and wind. The McGregor bill is greener, forcing Ohio utilities to get 22 percent by 2020 from renewable sources only.

“I think we are going to have a very strong green proposal,” said Borgemenke.

Oil and gas drilling on state parkland could give state coffers a boost. Industry officials told lawmakers last month that roughly a quarter of the land owned by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is suitable for oil and gas recovery. They estimated that drilling 200 wells a year over the next decade would pump out $20 million in lease bonus payments and $300 million in landowner royalties.

McGregor, who worked for ODNR for 12 years, said he thinks the drilling can be done in an “environmentally responsible” fashion and would provide income for his old agency, which has seen some lean budgets in recent years.

“ODNR has been absolutely starved to death,” he said.