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OIly Salesman

A mysterious document spurs a probe of Ohio prospectors

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Ohio residents make appealing business partners for drilling companies that specialize in hydraulic fracturing.

The new technology enables the extraction of small bubbles of oil or gas trapped in the layer of Marcellus shale that happens to blanket the eastern half of the state. But the technique has caused an uproar with environmentalists who say that the chemicals injected during high-pressure "fracking" contaminate water supplies and allow gas to flow where it isn't supposed to go. As drillers descend upon Ohio with new fervor, their sales pitch is countered by images of homeowners lighting tap water on fire and tales of fracking gone dangerously awry.

The contentiousness heightened recently when a mysterious document was found in the western Ohio hamlet of Yellow Springs. Apparently part of a sales manual, the pages advise land lease agents how to lie to property owners so that they will sign over their mineral rights.

Evidently, a Yellow Springs home-owner found a three-ring binder containing the nefarious instructions in their driveway after it presumably tumbled from an agent's vehicle. The pages read like an excerpt from Salesmanship for Assholes.

"Sometimes landowners will read the lease before signing and realize that the lease renews automatically if any oil/gas are produced from the well. Do not stress this point. Just state that the lease is for 5 years," it reads in part. "They don't need to know, or discover through discussions with us, that the lease can extend indefinitely with no further permission from the landowner."

Another section details how to downplay the environmentally charged issues associated with fracking. Suggestions include "Distance our selling position from the movie 'Gasland,'" a reference to the recent anti-fracking documentary, and "Do not mention water contamination in Pennsylvania."

Also interesting is this axiom of prospecting: "Men are more likely to sign than women. Men don't like to believe that you know more than they do, so they are also less likely to ask questions."

But if oil and gas prospectors were looking to hoodwink reluctant property owners, they would have done well to target just about any town besides Yellow Springs. The village outside Dayton has been the epicenter of Ohio progressivism since it was settled in 1825 by families trying to establish a utopian, socialistic commune. Home to Antioch College and legions of post-graduate scholars, it's also ground zero for the Green Environmental Coalition, which helps poorer communities throughout the Midwest take on big polluters.

In short, any Yellow Springs resident might be expected to speak with an attorney and a spiritual adviser before signing over mineral rights.

The discovery has sparked several state representatives to ask Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to investigate possible fraud among oil and gas companies operating in Ohio.

"This encourages a conduct that, if not actually criminal, is close," says Representative Dennis Murray of Sandusky.

Though the paperwork contains no identifying information, only one company is currently scouring Yellow Springs for potential oil reserves: West Bay Exploration of Traverse City, Michigan.

"I'm very happy to hear that the attorney general is going to look into it," says West Bay's vice president, Pat Gibson. Until Scene called, he says, nobody had bothered to ask his company about the document.

"This has nothing to do with West Bay. When I heard about it, I questioned our landsmen very forcefully. This appears to me to be a very well-written piece of anti-fracking propaganda." (Rumors of the document's existence originally made the rounds through various environmental groups; attempts by Scene to locate the person who allegedly found the binder were unsuccessful. The attorney general's office confirms it has contacted the homeowner.)

According to Gibson, West Bay aims to drill conventional oil wells in a seven-county area in southwestern Ohio where the shale layer is thin or nonexistent. No fracking techniques will be used, he says.

When told that West Bay claims no connection to the sales document, Representative Murray said he was unaware that the company was the only one looking to drill in that area of the state.

"It's my understanding that many of these land men are working for much smaller entities, and they dupe, trick, and cheat people out of their land rights," he says. One common practice is to pay property owners a fraction of what the drilling companies later pay for mineral rights, Murray adds.

But he does not believe the document would be used by independent agents. "This looks like a much more sophisticated document that a one- or two-person operation wouldn't need," he says.

The attorney general's office, meanwhile, is still gathering information. According to a spokeswoman, no decision has been made as to whether a fraud investigation will go forward.

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