Gas under cemeteries raises money, moral questions
COLUMBUS, Ohio – Loved ones aren't the only thing buried in the 122-year-old Lowellville Cemetery in eastern Ohio. Deep underground, locked in ancient shale formations, are lucrative quantities of natural gas.
Whether to drill for that gas is causing soul-searching as cemeteries — including veterans' final resting places in Colorado and Mississippi — join parks, playgrounds, churches and residential backyards among the ranks of places targeted in the nation's shale drilling boom.
Opponents say cemeteries are hallowed ground that shouldn't be sullied by drilling activity they worry will be noisy, smelly and unsightly. Defenders say the drilling is so deep that it doesn't disturb the cemetery and can generate revenue to enhance the roads and grounds.
"Most people don't like it," said 70-year-old Marilee Pilkington, who lives down the road from the cemetery in rural Poland Township and whose father, brother, nephew and niece are all buried there.
"I think it's a dumb idea because I wouldn't want anyone up there disturbing the dead, number one, and, number two, I don't like the aspect of drilling," she said.
Township trustees received a proposal this year to lease cemetery mineral rights for $140,000, plus 16 percent of any royalties, for any oil and gas. Similar offers soon followed at two other area cemeteries.
Longtime Trustee Mark Naples felt the same way as Pilkington when the issue arose — despite the fact $140,000 could cover the cemetery's budget, minus road maintenance, for more than 20 years.
"Our concern was we weren't going to let anybody come in there and move anything" in the cemetery, he said. "They weren't going to have my vote for that."
John Campbell, a lease agent for Campbell Development LLC, a company based in Fort Worth, Texas, declined a request for more information on his proposal, which was not expected to stir any graves. He said only that the offer was not accepted.
It was just more fuel for drilling opponents in the Youngstown area, already rocked by a series of earthquakes that have been tied to deep-well injection of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and other drilling activities. They're now fighting for a citywide drilling ban.
Concerns are driven largely by a lack of information, said John Stephenson, president of the Texas Cemeteries Association.
"A lot of it just has to do with the way that it's presented," he said. "You're hundreds of feet below the ground, and it's not disturbing any graves."
It's possible to reach oil and gas deposits now from drilling rigs placed sometimes miles away because of advances in what's called horizontal drilling. The technology has made vast new shale energy deposits available under the Northeast, Texas and elsewhere.
Stephenson leased mineral rights under two of his cemeteries within the past three years, he said. Each is about a century old and populated with 75,000 graves. Revenue from the leases — he wouldn't say how much — has allowed him to pave roads, repair fences and make other improvements during economic hard times.
The Catholic Cemeteries Association in Pittsburgh also saw benefits to leasing mineral rights under 11 of its cemeteries comprising more than 1,200 acres. The five-year lease, signed in 2008, came to light through news reports in 2010.
Douglas Shields, a city councilman at the time, was able to push through a citywide drilling ban amid the outrage stirred up by the debate.
"Everybody (in the press) liked the ghoulish aspects of drilling on sacred ground and disturbing great-Grandma's body and all that," Shields said. "I'd say there were many other issues of greater immediate concern, but that's what the hook to it was."
In Poland Township, officials were full of questions: Could they legally sell the mineral rights to a public cemetery? What claim would families with burial plots have to the royalties?
"You know what it is, it's emotional," Poland Township Administrator Jim Scharville said. "A lot of people don't want any type of drilling. There's something about disturbing the sanctuary of a cemetery. We're not talking about dinosaurs now and creatures that roamed the earth millions of years ago. We're talking about loved ones who have died, people we knew."
Plot owners have no legal claim to the mineral rights at a cemetery, Stephenson said. Their agreements are for an indefinite rental of sorts at the surface level — and a promise the site will be maintained, he said.
The Ohio township was also worried about not acting, Scharville said, out of fear the oil and gas could be claimed through mandatory pooling and they would wind up with nothing. Under such laws, well operators can seek underground access to properties without the owner's permission through a state review board.
The inability to control mineral rights has also become a concern in Colorado, where the National Cemetery Association, which operates veterans' cemeteries, is working to select a site for a new cemetery.
One of four prospective sites, in Fountain, could have been open to drilling because the mineral rights weren't free and clear, said Glenn Madderom, the agency's chief of cemetery development and improvement service. That presented a disincentive, even though its owners plan to donate the land at no cost to the government.
"Certainly you don't want oil drilling operations occurring on a property where it could be disruptive to the services or to the visitors, to the serenity or the peace of the site," Madderom said. "A national cemetery, we call it a national shrine. It's a beautiful, well-maintained property that honors the veterans and their families, and so oil drilling operations on that site are just not appropriate."
The administration also successfully fought to move drilling operations to the other side of a forest abutting the veterans' cemetery in Natchez, Miss., to preserve the mood, he said. Such sites are all eventually listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Associated Press writer Thomas J. Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.