Workers unload waste water from natural gas drilling rigs at a salt water disposal well site just north of Guy, Arkansas, January 24, 2011. (Photo: Stephen Thornton / The New York Times)
Ohio regulators confirmed late last week what many observers already suspected: a fracking wastewater disposal well caused 12 earthquakes near Youngstown last year as the state threw open its doors to the controversial oil- and gas-drilling technique.
All the earthquakes were clustered less than a mile from an especially deep well where fracking fluids are stored as wastewater underground after being used for drilling. Earthquakes are extremely rare in the area.
The largest earthquake, a 4.0-magnitude seismic event that was felt across the Youngstown area, occurred on December 31, just one day after regulators shut down the suspect disposal well. The next day, outspoken fracking proponent Gov. John Kasich put a moratorium on wastewater injection in the vicinity of the well, which will continue under new rules issued by regulators.
Anti-fracking activists and Ohio State Rep. Bob Hagan, a Democrat from the area, quickly lashed out last month at Kasich, who has enjoyed considerable campaign contributions from fracking companies and signed a bill last year allowing oil and gas firms to drill in state parks.
"Fracking" is short for hydraulic fracturing, an environmentally controversial oil- and gas-drilling technique that involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals underground to break up rock and release fossil fuels. Some of the water returns as a wastewater brine contaminated with fracking chemicals and underground materials, so fracking companies often pump the brine into underground wells for permanent storage.
The discovery of massive natural gas reserves under Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, along with the development of enhanced horizontal fracking techniques, has prompted an oil and gas rush in the region. A lack of federal regulations has left states like Ohio scrambling to catch up.
Evidence gathered by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) suggests that fluid from the injection well intersected an unmapped fault and caused movement that created earthquakes. The ODNR also issued with their earthquake findings new rules for wastewater disposal that regulators claim will be some of the nation's toughest.
The new rules prohibit new wastewater wells from being drilled into the deep Precambrian basement rock layers, and drillers will be required to install high-tech monitoring equipment.
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The ODNR claims that earthquakes have been linked to only six of the nation's 144,000 injection wells, which take in 2 billion gallons of wastewater each day. But the trembling ground in Ohio and other states, such as Arkansas, did not sit well with residents and environmentalists. The Ohio Environmental Council (OEC) applauded the new rules, but criticized regulators for allowing drillers to cause earthquakes in the first place.
"Although it is a very rare thing for an injection well to cause an earthquake, there have been other confirmed earthquakes caused by deep injection wells in other states over the past few years," wrote OEC Law Fellow Grant Maki. "During that time, Ohio kept on drilling these wells at a faster and faster pace. If you continually play with fire, you will, eventually, get burnt. We commend ODNR for taking this necessary action. However, we should have done these studies before injecting millions of gallons of high-pressure fluid into the 'basement rock.'"
Several states are debating what to do with the millions of gallons of sometimes-toxic wastewater left over from fracking. Last year, regulators in Pennsylvania had to demand that fracking companies stop sending wastewater to public treatment facilities.
The ODNR said it prefers underground wells to other disposal methods. Underground wells have not caused any subsurface groundwater contamination since the state began using them in 1983. Prior to that time, wastewater was stored in surface pits that damaged the environment.
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