Natural gas under graveyards raises moral, money questions

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.
By JULIE CARR SMYTH Published: July 3, 2012
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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 Northeast, Texas and elsewhere.