By Karl Henkel
Residents of the placid, open farmland in western Mahoning County are no strangers to oil and gas drilling.
Back in the 1970s, in the shallow Clinton Sandstone, drilling took off, and hundreds of wells popped up in cornfields, backyards and along state routes.
Those wells still stand today.
Some swing and sway, mimicking their wind-blown corn-stalk neighbors.
Others have rusted, frozen in time, representing a dried-up natural-energy rush.
Now there is a new rush, known to many as the Utica and Marcellus shales.
And with that boom comes large derricks, industrial truck traffic and environmental worries about horizontal fracturing.
But along the quiet, rural stretches of county roads in Milton, Berlin and Goshen townships, panic isn’t as manifested as one might think.
“We’ve had wells for years,” said Charles Swindler, superintendent of Western Reserve Schools.
In fact, it has brought some excitement, community improvements and economic opportunity to this trio of townships.
“I think everybody is cautiously optimistic,” said Harold Campbell, a local farmer and Milton Township trustee. “I think it’s going to be something big.”
Milton’s shale experience should provide a blueprint for the rest of the county when it comes to the next big Mahoning Valley industry.
Until then, the mystique surrounding the oil and gas uprising has brought much curiosity.
On an unseasonably warm mid-November Sunday morning, Dave Harless and his dog, an Akita named Snoop, took their usual walk through Milton.
Beginning from their house on Creed Road, they traveled north on Newton Falls Road.
Just like any other day, they took a few seconds to stop and look at Mahoning County’s first Utica and Marcellus shale drilling operation.
“They’ve had about 10 different rigs there,” he said, pointing in the direction of the already-fracked well.
Fracking is a process where water, chemicals and sand are blasted into rocks deep below the ground to unlock natural oil and gas.
The process, used for more than a half-century, has come under fire for potential
But residents such as Harless are confident that drilling companies are taking the correct steps to ensure safety and prosperity for the entire community.
For that reason, drilling has drawn so much interest.
The well has become a pseudo tourist attraction, with residents as far south as Columbiana County flocking to see the operation.
They often leave disappointed, however, as the well pad is nestled behind a couple of old barns, in a cleared-out field a few hundred feet from the road.
Harless has tried to pry info from some of the site workers, but they “haven’t really said a whole lot,”
leaving him and others to rely on rumors and speculation.
“Nobody really knows much about it,” Harless said.
David Geatches, a lifelong farmer and General Motors Lordstown retiree, does know a little about the operation.
The Milton well is on one of his properties along Newton Falls Road.
He doesn’t like his name publicized, a difficult stipulation considering his name is plastered on a big white sign in front of the well pad.
Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. names wells after the landowner.
The well name is probably the most fame he’ll get.
Unlike landowners who signed meaty leases with drilling giants for thousands per acre, Geatches couldn’t capitalize on that opportunity.
When he and his brother bought a 127-acre plot of land next to the multigenerational family farm, Columbia Oil already had drilling rights “held by production.”
Held by production is a legal term that says as long as a well produces, the lease remains valid. If there was no production, Geatches could have signed directly with Chesapeake or through a landowner advocacy group such as the Associated Landowners of the Ohio Valley.
As it turned out, Columbia flipped the lease to Chesapeake.
When Chesapeake approached Geatches about a possible well, he agreed, but with a couple of conditions.
The well couldn’t be in the middle of his cornfield, and water that he gets from a well needed to be tested before the start of operations.
Chesapeake complied with both requests.
In fact, the company has complied with all of Geatches’ requests.
“They’ve done what they said they were going to do,” he said. “I’m OK with it so far.”
Geatches, who still will receive royalties of 15 percent based on production, peers out of the window of his two-story home about two or three times each day “whenever I hear a noise,” he said.
It is more about his curiosity, as the sounds have remained minimal.
“I haven’t lost any sleep,” he said.
The Milton well is the only drilled well in the county, but that title will not last long.
Not more than a dozen miles south, along state Route 534, sits a plot of land that is scheduled to see four separate drilling operations in a 3-mile radius soon.
Two of those drilling spots sit on land owned by Bob Jarvis on Calla Road in Goshen Township.
Jarvis, like Geatches, is no stranger to drilling — and that’s a valid description even without meeting the man.
The winding, rocky commute up Jarvis’ half-mile long driveway gives a glimpse of past drilling activity.
There’s a crude petroleum barrel protruding from a wooded area about the half-mile marker and a Clinton gas-well pump near the end of the driveway.
Jarvis could not be reached on multiple occasions; county records show he hasn’t leased his land for drilling, meaning he most likely acquired the land with a lease intact.
But the interesting aspect isn’t the road to Jarvis’ house, but the roads surrounding his property, specifically West Calla Road.
For those who haven’t driven the narrow, shoulderless, two-lane road recently, a return visit may be a surprise.
Chesapeake recently hired subcontractors to repave the road — with county approval, said Marilyn Kenner, chief deputy engineer — in anticipation of the pounding the pavement will take from the endless lines of oversized trucks.
The county recently put together a road maintenance agreement that calls for drilling companies to repair roads in advance of drilling activities.
Chesapeake has already upgraded Calla Road between state Route 534 and just east of Seacrist Road through a process called reclamation. During that process asphalt is pulverized, topped with a layer of dry cement and then coated with a thick coat of new asphalt.
That agreement, however, wasn’t in place for the Milton drilling, and the truck traffic destroyed a stretch of County Line Road just off Interstate 76.
“They didn’t follow the prescribed route,” Campbell said. “That was our only complaint.”
Chesapeake, however, fixed that span and will also repave Newton Falls Road when it ceases heavy operations.
It’s a windfall for local residents and county engineers like Kenner, who can have roads resurfaced at no cost to taxpayers.
“Otherwise,” Kenner said, “these roads would not have been redone.”
Splitting the difference between the two drilling hot spots is Berlin, a 25-square mile township of approximately 2,200 residents.
It’s home to Western Reserve Schools, a district of about 850 students, all of whom will be housed in one central school on U.S. Route 224 come December.
It will be geothermal-equipped, and the district already has made news for installing wind turbines.
Now, it has leased its 114-acre plot of land to Chesapeake for five years and will receive $2,250 per acre — more than $250,000 — in up-front bonus payments.
That money will help to offset $380,000 in state budget cuts to the district over the next two years, school officials say.
It will receive royalties of 17.5 percent for any oil and gas produced from wells on a production unit that is not to exceed 1,250 acres.
(That means the district, which has 9 percent of the 1,280-acre plot, will receive 1.6 percent of oil- and gas- production value.)
Swindler said that the district opted to lease the land after realizing oil and gas companies had gobbled up surrounding properties. It negotiated directly with Chesapeake.
As with any drilling operations, environmental concerns have surfaced,
especially about drinking water and well placement.
But Western Reserve signed its lease only after requiring special stipulations.
A drilling operation can’t be within 500 feet of any facility — the standard distance is 300 feet — and Chesapeake cannot drill on the acreage’s protected grasslands.
“There’s not much on our property we could use with the football field and the schools,” Swindler said.
The contract with Chesapeake also stipulates that if water on the property becomes contaminated, Chesapeake will be required to provide a clean water source for faculty, staff and students.
But the environmental concerns haven’t caused any backlash from parents, Swindler said.
“I thought I’d be getting calls on it, but I haven’t had one,” he said. “Especially since I won’t have to ask for more money from the taxpayers.”
Jobs and economy
The negativity surrounding oil and gas drilling doesn’t appear to be coming from western Mahoning County.
It seems to be coming in the more heavily populated areas, among “city folk” as some residents described it.
Most residents, including Harless, think its important for the area to embrace drilling.
“I think this is needed,” he said, “for American jobs and the economy.”
Harless has yet to sign an oil and gas lease on his property, but would consider it “if the money’s right.”
The money tree that is Chesapeake isn’t likely to shed foliage anytime soon.
The company that has already bought or leased hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Eastern Ohio has said the region could be worth $15 billion to $20 billion in benefits.
It has offered bonus payments of at least $2,250 per acre in most areas and royalties near 20 percent.
Campbell has capitalized on that opportunity, leasing most of his 250 acres to Chesapeake. He and other township officials are looking into the prospect of leasing township land in hopes of upgrading facilities such as its 100-plus year-old town hall.
Campbell also hopes the township can change some zoning in areas to promote business growth.
“It’s hard to tell what’s going to happen,” he said. “But they’re spending so much money that it’s going to big when it starts coming.”