Starting in March 2011, a series of microearthquakes hit Ohio. The first few registered just above 2.0 on the Richter scale and were not felt by residents. But on New Year’s Eve, a tremor hit Youngstown that measured 4.0—still very mild, but noticed. It was the second quake to hit the area in a week, moreover—and both had epicenters within five miles of a year-old storage well for wastewater that is a byproduct of the extraction of natural gas.
While the quakes caused negligible injuries and property damage, they were enough to prompt Governor John Kasich to shut down five storage wells in the vicinity, pending an investigation into any possible connection between drilling and seismic activity. The episode made Ohio more than ever a central front in the struggle over the controversial natural-gas extraction technique called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
In ordinary hydraulic fracturing, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is blasted into rock at high pressure, fracturing the rock and releasing natural gas. The gas is drawn up to the surface, along with the “flowback water.” The gas is processed, and the flowback fluid is stored in tanks or lined pits before ultimately being recycled or injected deep underground into heavily protected waste disposal wells. This technique has been used in the United States since the 1950s with little incident.
Now, advances in drilling technology have made it possible to extract oil and natural gas from shale lying deeper beneath the earth’s surface. After wells are drilled straight down for 5,000 to 8,000 feet, drilling continues horizontally, within the shale layer. Amy Meyers Jaffe, a fellow in energy studies at the Baker Institute at Rice University, estimates that enough gas is recoverable from shale in North America to fuel the country for 45 years.
Eastern Ohio is rich in Utica Shale, a sedimentary rock located thousands of feet below the Marcellus Shale already being fracked in New York and Pennsylvania. About seven months ago, Ohio began to grant permits for exploratory drilling in the Utica Shale, where state officials estimate that as much as 15.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas are trapped. And in the last month, foreign investors committed more than $2 billion to shale operations in the state.
According to a study by the Ohio extraction industry’s educational arm, exploiting this resource could create more than 200,000 jobs and net the state billions of dollars. Such an explosion of industry in a state with 8.5 percent unemployment might seem like a godsend—but fears about the safety of the process, aggravated by the recent seismic events, stand in the way.
In the last five years or so, environmentalists have taken issue with nearly every aspect of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, from the location of wells, to the large quantity of water required to frack a well (about 4.5 million gallons from start to finish, roughly the amount a golf course uses in a month), to the possibility that flowback could escape from wells and contaminate groundwater.
Now, waste-disposal wells are being linked to seismic activity. John Armbruster, a seismologist at Columbia University, speculates that drilling a deep-injection well too close to a fault line could trigger an “earthquake waiting to happen.” Some state officials are calling for a blanket moratorium on the shale-exploration enterprise.
“Part of the problem is there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Heidi Hetzel-Evans of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Hetzel-Evans notes that while horizontal hydraulic fracturing is new to Ohio, wastewater disposal wells are not. There are 176 wastewater wells in the state, many of which have been operating safely since the 1980s.
She adds that “Ohio is four years behind other states when it comes to fracking, so we’ve had a chance to look at the other states and learn from what they’re dealing with. We’ve already strengthened our rules and doubled our inspection staff.”
As a result, Ohio has some of the stiffest regulations regarding both production and wastewater disposal in the country. “The EPA mandates that injection wells be inspected once a year,” she says, “but Ohio inspects our wells once every 11 to 12 weeks. That makes a big difference.”
Assurances from regulators, however, have not satisfied critics. In November, the Wayne National Forest, in southeastern Ohio, withdrew more than 3,000 acres of federal land from a scheduled public auction of drilling leases, citing the possibility that horizontal fracking would be used on the land.
Squeezed between environmental concerns and the need for jobs, some politicians are hedging their bets. Senator Sherrod Brown takes a “cautionary” approach to hydraulic fracturing. On January 7, Brown told a crowd at the University of Akron, “I think [fracking] is going to happen. . . . It’s a lot of jobs. It’s a lot of prosperity. But it’s also our drinking water and it’s also the issue of waste disposal.” Instead, Brown prefers to emphasize green energy. Describing his visit to a local facility that converts waste into energy, Brown said, “Whatever we can do with companies like that, we should.”
Brown is up for reelection in the fall, and his main Republican challenger—state treasurer Josh Mandel—is less reticent about natural gas. He believes Ohioans will not willingly pass up the potential gains of fracking.
“Ohioans want responsible and aggressive exploration of gas in Ohio,” he says. “It’s good for our economy, our citizens, and our national security.”
Mandel associates Brown, a liberal Democrat, with what he says is the Obama administration’s tendency “to methodically vilify our natural resources, to treat them like liabilities and not assets.” Under this administration, the Department of the Interior has tightened its program for oil shale leases, while the SEC has upped its reporting requirements for companies that pursue hydraulic fracturing.
But then, elections have a funny way of changing people’s minds on hot-button issues. The White House’s January 2012 jobs report includes a section on “America’s Natural Resources Boom,” which says that “the potential benefits to the U.S. economy [from natural gas] are substantial” if “appropriate care” is taken with regard to health and safety.
The report continues, “An abundant local supply will translate into relatively low costs for the industries that use natural gas as an input. Expansion in these industries . . . will boost investment and exports in the coming years, generating new jobs.”
After three years of tax hikes on the oil and gas industry, EPA meddling, and other bureaucratic obstruction, voters in Ohio and elsewhere who favor moving ahead on domestic natural gas will have to decide whether to credit this apparent conversion or discount it as empty campaign rhetoric.
Kate Havard is a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis.