Interested in learning more about the potential impacts of natural gas development in the region, many area residents and business owners attended one of two special forums held Thursday in Marietta.
A number of local residents have been contacted recently by oil and gas prospectors who are hoping to secure mineral leases.
But for every lease offer, there is a landowner with questions, prompting the need for the forums, held at the Lafayette Hotel and sponsored by Peoples Bank and the Marietta Area Chamber of Commerce.
About 80 people attended the early afternoon session, designed for business owners. The evening session, for landowners, drew a capacity crowd with 125 people in attendance.
"We had another 80 on a waiting list who wanted to come," said Charlotte Keim, chamber president. "We're considering doing this again because there's so much interest and so many questions."
One of those in attendance was Robin Newhart, of Whipple, who said she was recently contacted about the prospect of leasing her land. She said the promises of upfront cash and royalties is tempting but she worries about potential dangers from the drilling. She asked the panel about risks, including the possibility of contaminating drinking water sources.
"A lawyer (who spoke earlier) said we have nothing to lose but if we have leaking frack water we have a lot to lose," Newhart said.
Robert Chase, professor and chair of Marietta College's Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology, said although there are risks, there is no evidence a fracking well has ever contaminated a drinking water supply. He said the process has been used safely for decades.
Chase said oil and gas companies know and understand the risks involved in drilling and are prepared to respond to problems quickly.
"Should we shut down the whole industry because there's a 1 in 25,000 risk of something happening?" Chase asked. "You tell me."
The forum featured local experts who discussed the impact of gas drilling from legal, accounting, financial planning and economic perspectives.
Another landowner asked if they could restrict where gas pipelines are located after agreeing to a lease.
Local attorney Jim Huggins said it depends on what was agreed to in the lease.
"Unless there's something specific in the lease, they have the right to reasonable use of the land to develop, market and sell natural gas," he said.
Huggins strongly encouraged individuals to contact an attorney before signing any lease.
Depending on the location, some prospectors are paying up to $3,000 per acre up front with promises of 12 to 18 percent in royalties.
Traditionally, oil and gas leases have paid as little as $10 per acre and about one-eighth in royalties, Huggins said.
The recent frenzy is over gas being recovered from Marcellus and Utica shale formations, both of which can be found in Washington County. Scientists have always known the formations, which run from 8,000 to 15,000 feet below ground, held large amounts of natural gas but only recently have oil companies developed the techniques to tap into the resource.
The Marcellus formation alone is believed to hold more than 50 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas.
Caldwell resident Rome Lori said he came to Thursday's meetings to learn more about how the potential boon may affect his business and land. Lori owns a motel and restaurant in Noble County. He said he also owns more than 100 acres there.
"Some of the prospectors spending time over at the courthouse have been staying at the motel, so I've seen a little impact so far," he said. "What I really want to know is what will this really mean for the local economy."
Thursday's forums were divided with a two-hour session in the afternoon for business owners and an evening session for landowners. Lori attended both.
One landowner asked the panel if there was concern for too much development of the local natural gas supply.
"How are we going to sell it all?" he asked. "Will there be a market or will prices drop to where we can't make any money?"
Jerry James, president of Artex Oil Company in Marietta, said he anticipated demand for natural gas will grow as supplies grow. He said natural gas-fired power plants will be used more, especially as coal-fired plants are shuttered.
He said there is potential for more vehicles to be built or converted to run on natural gas.
James also noted that more than 100 years ago, during Ohio's first gas boon, the abundance of gas led to business development, especially for glass production.
"There's the potential for another market to develop," he said.