The rich Utica shale that runs beneath eastern Ohio holds vast quantities of natural gas, gas liquids and crude oil.
The help-wanted sign is out in Canton, Ohio, for Chesapeake Energy.
The company that has led the charge in shale gas drilling is looking for truck drivers with licenses for hazardous materials, a purchasing coordinator for oil field equipment, a pipeline technician, a field safety coordinator, administrative assistants, troubleshooting electricians, a tax analyst and more.
Chesapeake is mobilizing for a massive drilling and development campaign in the state. The company has spent $2.2 billion and amassed about 800,000 acres of leases in the rich Utica shale that runs underneath eastern Ohio. It has eight rigs running and will have 20 poking holes in the ground around Election Day. It plans to install 200 miles of pipeline this year to bring its bounty to market.
"We are very excited about the Utica," Chesapeake's chief executive, Aubrey McClendon, said in a Feb. 22 conference call.
That's welcome news in Canton, where the unemployment rate peaked at 12.3 percent in January 2010 and where it was still running at 8.7 percent at the end of last year.
But shale drilling has also presented Ohioans with a dilemma. Chesapeake Energy is using the controversial combination of hydraulic fracturing and improved horizontal drilling methods to unlock vast quantities of natural gas, gas liquids and crude oil, driving down gas prices to 10-year lows. That has raised hopes for a revival of industrial and power plant uses of the gas.
In some cases, however, companies that haven't drilled properly have contaminated water aquifers. And "fracking," which uses about 4.5 million gallons of water - about 1,300 tank trucks full - to initially stimulate a well and get it flowing has raised concerns about the disposal of toxic drilling waste; a Youngstown, Ohio, disposal well for fracking waste has been linked by seismologists to earthquakes. In December, the governor ordered the closure of several disposal wells in the area.
A Quinnipiac University opinion poll in January showed that 85 percent of Ohio voters believed that natural gas drilling would create jobs and that by a 64-to-29 percent margin they believed that the economic benefits of drilling for natural gas outweigh the environmental concerns.
At the same time, voters said by a 72-to-23 percent margin that hydraulic fracturing should be suspended until there are further studies about its impact. They said by a 43-to-16 percent margin that fracking would damage the environment.
Support for a moratorium was strong among all groups, Quinnipiac said.
"Ohio can't have it both ways," Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement after the poll was released. "A ban on hydraulic fracturing would result in increased energy costs and bring oil-and-gas-related capital investment and job growth in Ohio to a grinding halt, just as the positive effects of both are currently reviving once-struggling communities throughout the state."
"They want the jobs, but they're very risk-averse," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac polling institute.
For GOP presidential candidates, the issue poses a quandary, as it does for the state's Republican Gov. John Kasich, whose approval ratings have been low.
"The politics of the situation would probably make a governor, even a free market advocate like Kasich, want to make sure he's dotted all the i's and crossed all his t's when it comes to safety," Brown said.
The latest boom
Oil and gas drilling is nothing new in Ohio. In 1860, just a year after the first commercial discovery of oil in Pennsylvania, drillers found oil in Ohio near Macksburg. By 2010, there had been 275,774 wells drilled in the state, putting it in fourth place nationwide.
John D. Rockefeller established the Standard Oil Co. by cornering the Ohio refinery business and pipelines to drive down crude oil prices and capture retail profits.
The size of Ohio's reservoirs have paled next to the giants in Texas, California and Alaska. There was an Ohio oil rush in the 1890s, and the state's production peaked in 1896. High oil and gas prices after the 1979 price shock triggered a new drilling rush, and natural gas production peaked in 1984, when high prices provided incentives for drillers.
Today there are 64,378 active wells, most of them "stripper" wells producing fewer than 10 barrels of oil a day or less than 60,000 cubic feet a day of natural gas.
Hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling is a new twist, however. The horizontal drilling allows companies to snake through the shale layer rather than just tap a cross section. Water is shot into wells to crack the shale rock and release natural gas or oil, which then flows up the well. What makes Ohio particularly alluring is that many of its shale areas are "wet," meaning they have crude oil or natural gas liquids - currently much more valuable than gas, which is unexpectedly abundant and cheap.
Suddenly, Ohio is on the verge of an old-fashioned oil and gas rush. In certain hot spots, sums exceeding $3,000 an acre have been paid for a five-year lease, according to the law firm Johnson & Johnson, which represents landowners. On the edges, companies are paying $1,000 an acre, it said. Some companies are offering more than the one-eighth landowner royalty that has been the standard in Ohio.
In January, the French oil giant Total paid $700 million for a 25 percent interest in part of Chesapeake's Ohio acreage and pledged to pay $1.63 billion over seven years for drilling and well completion.
While big money is at stake, Ohioans fear their water is, too.
Fracking got a bad reputation in Ohio before the shale drilling boom started. Hydraulic fracturing can be used in vertical wells, too, and in 2007 Ohio Valley Energy "fracked" a well in Bainbridge Township. Later, a report by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources said the company disregarded a bad cement job and went ahead with the fracturing anyway. Pressure built up in the annular space around the drill pipe, and gas migrated vertically through natural fractures in the rocks, the report said.
On Dec. 12, natural gas was detected at the local police station and two days later in homes, some of which had wells in their basements.
Then early on the morning of Dec. 15, an explosion lifted the two-story home of Richard and Thelma Payne off its foundation. The Paynes, an elderly couple who had lived there since 1956, were "catapulted" from their bed, according to a lawsuit filed later. The Paynes were not hurt, but 19 homes were evacuated that morning.