ALLEDONIA - Natural gas lease holders in some parts of Belmont and Monroe counties may not see any wells drilled for some time, as a dispute has formed between the area's gas drilling and mining companies.
Locally, many of the leases in the southern portion of Belmont County - especially those in York, Washington, Wayne, Goshen and Smith townships - and those in northern Monroe County lie in areas where Murray Energy Corp. has plans to mine for coal.
"Our coal ownership is superior to any oil and gas leases," said Robert Edward Murray, vice president for business development and external affairs for Murray Energy. "We are indeed concerned about protecting our coal reserves and the jobs we provide from indiscriminate drilling for oil and gas."
Jeff Neu is the public and government affairs advisor for XTO Energy, which is a fully-owned subsidiary of global oil titan Exxon Mobil. He declined to comment on Murray's statements. Chesapeake Energy spokesman Pete Kenworthy also did not wish to comment, nor did Hess Corp. spokeswoman Maripat Sexton.
Earlier this year, Hess took over leases previously signed with Marquette Exploration, while Chesapeake and XTO have been signing new leases throughout Belmont County for most of this year.
Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said Murray Energy has a right to protect coal shafts from drilling, but not the coal reserves.
Murray "is trying to block us from drilling where (the company) may decide to mine 20 years from now," said Stewart. "That's not the intent of the law. The law is set up to protect coal miners by preventing a gas rig from drilling into a mine shaft."
Stewart said Ohio law states that in coal-bearing townships, the coal interests can object to the location of a gas well if the well would endanger miner safety.
"This issue has been festering in Ohio for a long time," Stewart added. "It is a critical issue to the economic future of Belmont and Monroe counties."
Ohio's share of the Utica Shale may contain as many as 5.6 billion barrels of oil, said Terry Fleming, executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council. Stewart believes the oil industry needs to show Ohio legislators and regulators with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources how much oil could mean for the state's future.
Murray "believes (its) mineral interests are superior," said Stewart. "The economic value of the Utica Shale has the potential to surpass the economic value of the coal industry to the state of Ohio many times over."
Noting his company is "spending thousands of hours in working with oil and gas interests in the state of Ohio," Murray said he wants the gas wells near his mining operations located in a manner so that there will be "no loss of oil and gas production."
Stewart said Ohio DNR officials are working to resolve the dispute between the coal and gas industries, but officials at the department could not be reached for comment.
"We do not view the coal industry as our enemy at all," Stewart emphasized. "They are our partners in ensuring the future of strong domestic energy production."