COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – Oil and gas companies are one step closer to extracting natural gas from underneath Ohio state land.

Despite a series of last-minute changes to the legislation, the Ohio House passed House Bill 507 59-33 Tuesday afternoon without much discussion, pushing the bill to Gov. Mike DeWine’s desk for consideration. Dubbed “The Chicken Bill,” the legislation was originally meant to reduce the number of poultry chicks that can be sold in lots from six to three. Last week, legislators tacked on amendments to expedite the process for companies to get fracking leases – and to redefine natural gas as “green energy.”

“This is a straight-up bait and switch,” said Rep. Juanita Brent (D-Cleveland), the lone voice of opposition to echo through the session hall.

Brent, who was a co-sponsor of the original bill, said she supported the legislation — and encouraged fellow representatives to do the same — because it initially sought to make participating in 4-H more accessible for lower-income families, who might otherwise struggle to afford to buy chicks. But the bill that came from the Senate, she said, was nearly unrecognizable from the one she promoted.

Fracking on state land

More than 800,000 acres of Ohio’s land is managed by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the ODNR reported in 2022. Of that land, about 170,000 acres is home to 75 state parks.

State agencies have been able to lease state lands to oil and gas companies since the legislature enshrined it into Ohio law in 2011. But critics argue the amended bill changes the law’s language to remove much of state agencies’ choice in the matter, instead establishing that such agencies “shall lease” parcels of state land for natural gas exploration.

Current LawNew Law
“A state agency may lease a formation within a parcel of land that is owned or controlled by the state agency for the exploration for and development and production of oil or natural gas.” “A state agency shall lease, in good faith, a formation within a parcel of land that is owned or controlled by the state agency for the exploration for and development and production of oil or natural gas.”
Language change under H.B. 507

Proponents of the bill, including its sponsor, Rep. Kyle Koehler (R-Springfield), argue the change is necessary to address delays in granting state park fracking leases.

“A decade ago, we changed the law,” Koehler said. “To be clear, this amendment does not allow for surface drilling on state lands and does not provide carte blanche drilling on state lands. The amendment is narrow to address the delays in leasing small state parcels.”

Rob Brundrett, president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said developers mostly aren’t looking to lease large amounts of state land for fracking — it’s small portions of public land owned by state agencies that sit between parcels of private land. The Ohio Oil and Gas Association recommended the legislature change the language to address those delays, not to encroach on state parks.

“What you see most often is these delays caused by these smaller, one-off parcels,” Brundrett said. “The idea that you’re going to be able to force a state to lease a park — I just don’t see that happening.”

The fracking future that some legislators imagine doesn’t include fracking towers springing from parklands like stalagmites; the bill’s supporters in the statehouse said towers — also known as oil derricks — would be built on adjacent land, with drills burrowing underneath to extract oil and natural gas from state land’s reserves.

Opponents argue, however, that stripping discretion from state agencies amounts to an automatic pass for any oil and gas companies that wish to frack.

“They knew this would be controversial, and they snuck it in at the last minute, and it’s a shame,” said Nolan Rutschilling, managing director of energy policy at the Ohio Environmental Council Action Fund.

Is natural gas ‘green energy’?

Another amendment added to the Chicken Bill redefines natural gas as a form of green energy, also newly defined under the bill to include forms of energy that are “more sustainable and reliable relative to some fossil fuels.”

When discussing the bill, Koehler shared an example of municipal landfill he lives near that used to have large stove pipes releasing methane gas from compost. He said over the course of a decade, a truck manufacturer built a pipeline to run the methane into its facility to power the plant.

“If that’s not renewable energy, I don’t know what is,” Koehler said.

Rutschilling disagreed, instead asserting that redefining natural gas as “green energy” amounts to misinformation.

“Green energy, clean energy, or renewable energy is understood by scientists, by laypeople, by everybody to mean energy that does not produce emissions,” said Rutschilling. “Natural gas does produce emissions, while wind or solar energy does not. By defining natural gas as ‘green,’ they’re muddying the waters.”

The definition change doesn’t impact the renewable portfolio standards — which require a certain amount of electricity to be from renewable energy sources. But Rutschilling said he and other environmentalists worry that the new definition opens the door for later legislation to incentivize companies to pursue natural gas as opposed to environmentally friendlier energy sources.

“This is what’s causing climate change,” Brent said on the House floor. “This isn’t green energy, this is bad energy.”

The definition of natural gas and language modification were two of six amendments the Senate approved 22-7 on Friday. The other four, as outlined by Koehler, include the following:

  • Prohibits all levels of government from banning the use of pesticides registered with the Ohio Department of Agriculture on private property
  • Eliminates the survey requirement for environmental health specialists
  • Corrects a requirement in another bill that people get auctioneering licenses in order to sell items using online servers such as eBay; requires license only if intent to auction more than $10,000 worth of goods per year
  • Extends existing law allowing municipalities to tow abandoned vehicles to include conservancy districts

“I think this bill is an example of what happens when chicks that are tiny grow up,” Koehler said. “They end up being full-grown birds and getting stuffed.”