Land & Environmental

File implicates gas industry

With Megan Bachman

Last week a Miami Township resident found a binder on her property containing what appeared to be a field guide for agents looking to lease private property for the purpose of oil and gas production. The unmarked document could not be linked to any particular organization, but it included a training manual advising field agents to use misleading and, if necessary, duplicitous arguments to obtain a lease agreement from a landowner for drilling rights.

Last fall West Bay Exploration Company, an oil and gas drilling company based in Traverse City, Mich., began seismic testing for oil and gas production potential in a 10-county area including Miami Township. Around February of this year, several area residents said they began receiving calls and visits by a West Bay representative who was offering property owners royalties in exchange for a signed lease to allow the company to continue testing on private property.

West Bay agent Jim Bucher did visit residents in this area on March 15, according to Pat Gibson, vice-president of West Bay Exploration. Bucher declined to comment for the article, but Gibson said the binder did not come from his company. The terminology used in the document is not consistent with industry concepts, and the writing was “sloppy” and unprofessional, he said.

It’s “absolutely not something produced by West Bay — in fact we don’t have any kind of a written document or field guide that we provide our landmen,” he said. “And having looked at it, to a large degree, I’m doubting that any oil and gas company produced it.”

The mysterious binder was found near the road at the edge of a Miami Township property over the April 9 weekend, according to the property owner, who wished to remain anonymous.

The five-page document entitled “Talking Points for Selling Oil and Gas Lease Rights” and labeled “proprietary — do not disclose,” is written as the selling plan for a drilling company that is moving into the “greater Ohio market” to try to obtain leases from private property owners. The narrative begins with a summary that it is “essential to contact land holders and acquire signatures before sentiment by environmental and other public organizations limits our ability to obtain access to private land for oil and gas development.”

The talking points include ways for a land agent to use the demographic profile of Midwesterns as “conservative,” “patriotic Americans” who “dislike confrontation” in order to obtain a lease as soon as possible. The document urges the landman to stress the fear of foreign oil dependence and return to the argument that “China bought more oil than the United States last year.” The document advises avoiding the topic of gas drilling and the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique that uses chemicals and large volumes of highly pressurized water to extract natural gas and has been associated with ground water contamination in several western states.

The document specifically instructs the landman to lie by telling property owners that other neighbors have already signed leases, even if they have not. And it advises dissembling information about both the life of the lease, which is initially for five years, but could extend to 40 years if wells are producing fuel, as well as the size of the well pad and density of wells, which could grow to as much as 10–20 wells per square miles and cover up to 20 acres total, according to the document. The document also advises the landman to diffuse fears that gas and oil drilling can trigger the release of radiation, and increase noise and traffic, and advises offering more money if the resident presses for more information on these issues.

Included in the talking points are strategies to get residents to sign, including that “the husband can sign the lease without spousal permission.”

According to Gibson, neither West Bay Exploration nor anyone in the industry uses the term “oil and gas lease rights,” as in the title of the document. And an oil and gas company would be buying, not selling, the oil and gas leases, as the document title also suggests. In addition, West Bay Exploration doesn’t provide written “talking points” to its land agents, Gibson said.

According to the property owner who found the binder, West Bay field agent Bucher paid her a visit sometime over the past two months attempting to have her sign a lease agreement. He made several follow-up calls, using many of the same talking points described in the document, she said. Another township resident who lives on North Enon Road and also prefered to remain anonymous also said that the phone conversations he had with Bucher closely resembled the talking points in the document.

“Several things in there were almost verbatim what he told us,” the North Enon road resident said.

The agent used the statement “China bought more oil than the United States” several times, and made a “big patriotic sell about getting off foreign oil,” the resident said. The agent also told the resident that a lot of other people in the area were signing, but declined to name anyone specifically. He also seemed reluctant to acknowledge that the lease could extend beyond five years, the resident said. And after the resident refused the first version of the lease agreement, the agent called again on March 31 and left a message telling the resident that the lease was in his name only, and as the property owner, he could sign the lease without his wife.

“I can’t verify the authorship [of the document],” the resident said. “But certainly there were some things that lined up with my experience with [Jim Bucher].”

The issue of oil and gas exploration and drilling has become increasingly controversial as the demand for affordable fuel sources has grown and citizens have become more aware of the potential negative environmental impacts of fracking, a process that some believe can contaminate the groundwater and threaten the local water supply. Last month several local residents spoke at state senate and house committee hearings in Columbus in opposition to two bills that would allow gas and oil production on state property, including state parks and universities. And this week, State Representative Teresa Fodor asked the Ohio attorney general to investigate “possible deceptive tactics” oil and gas companies might be using to get residents to sign leases.

The stakes are high right now, said Green Environmental Coalition President Vickie Hennessey, who spoke against the bill at a House Agricultural, Environmental and Natural Resources Committee hearing. If the document could be authenticated, it could be used as evidence of the practices oil and gas companies use to obtain drilling rights, she said. And that could have the kind of effect she wants on the drilling legislation vote.

Though the unverified document has been published on many environmental Web sites, including the GEC site, if its contents cannot be authenticated, none of it is conclusive, according to the property owner who found the binder in her yard. Her intention was to distribute the information locally for people to make their own judgements about its meaning, she said.

See the complete document here.

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