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Land Rush in Eastern Ohio a Boon for Local Economy

Land abstractors looking up mineral rights have filled the recorder's office in Belmont County for months.
Land abstractors looking up mineral rights have filled the recorder's office in Belmont County for months.

If you want to interview Columbiana County Recorder Craig Brown, don't expect any privacy. As I talk to Brown at his desk, two people line up behind me to use the work station in his office.

Craig Brown: Yesterday, I actually had four people in here all waiting to use one microfilm viewer. So yeah, I've actually given up some of my own personal space here which has taken a little bit of adjustment. (laughs)

Brown's offices are packed with workers preparing oil and gas leases and researching the mineral rights of local homeowners. It's been like this, every day, for over a year. That's because less than a mile below this small Appalachian village, and extending across eight states and Canada, lies the energy-rich Utica Shale.

Aubrey McClendon heads Chesapeake Energy, the country's second largest natural gas producer. He didn't skimp on the superlatives when describing the region this summer on CNBC's Mad Money.

Aubrey McClendon: What can it mean in the form of oil? I think this could be 25 billion barrels of oil equivalent in the form of oil, natural gas liquids, natural gas. It could be one of our biggest discoveries in US history.

ExxonMobil, Chevron and Royal Dutch Shell are also chasing leasing rights here. But despite the hype, little is publicly known about how much oil and gas the Utica will actually produce. Tom Stewart is with Ohio's Oil and Gas Association. He says new technology makes Ohio an attractive place for drillers.

Tom Stewart: It's making formations such as the Utica shale, where we always believed that the rock was so tight and dense that it would not yield oil and gas, it's taking formations like that and turning them into productive formations.

The technology making this possible is horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Drillers inject huge volumes of chemical-laced water and sand into horizontal wells to extract the oil and gas. The method is controversial and opponents argue the procedure, also known as fracking, can endanger drinking water.

Bob Rea heads Ohio's largest nonprofit property owners group, the Associated Landowners of the Ohio Valley. Fracking controversies aside, his group has negotiated environmental protections like liability clauses into their leases with energy companies.

Bob Rea: They're not coming here to ruin and wreck, but sometimes common sense things get overlooked. Once you contaminate your water, you're stuck. We want to make sure that this industry that's coming here understands how important this water is and any burden of any occurrence falls on the shoulder of the driller.

While drilling in the Utica is in its infancy, the land rush has been an economic boon. Mary Catherine Nixon is the recorder in Ohio's Belmont County, just ten miles from Wheeling, West Virginia. On a given day, Nixon says she's collecting $1,400 in copying fees alone from the two to three dozen mineral rights researchers who have camped out in her offices for months.

Mary Catherine Nixon: And I understand it's going to go on for months. But it's good for our economy. You know Belmont County's like the rest of the state, we've been hurting and I think this is going to be good for us. I'm hoping!

Some Ohio legislators have proposed banning fracking at least until the EPA finishes up a study on its affects on drinking water. But the bill isn't expected to pass. In the meantime, the market for Ohio landowners with mineral rights is booming. Just over a year ago, leases were going for about $75 an acre plus royalties. There are reports now of landowners signing mineral rights leases for nearly $5,000 an acre.