Figuring out the environmental consequences of oil and gas drilling starts with the numbers. How many wells are drilled down into Ohio’s earth already; and how many are likely to be in the future. Tom Tomastik of the state’s Division of Oil and Gas acknowledges no one is quite sure. “Northwestern Ohio was the initial big oil and gas play. That’s where Standard Oil was basically formed and John Rockefeller made his money. There were probably between 80 and 100 thousand wells drilled there between the 1880s and early 1900s.” Tomastik’s agency is charged with inspecting wells. He estimates Ohio has 200-thousand wells, some dating back to the Civil War--many of which are no longer on a map, or never were.
But as numerous as those wells are, they may pale in terms of impact compared to the wave of wells coming online now as part of the shale-gas drilling boom in eastern Ohio. Drilling leases for sites in Stark county alone have number more than two thousand in the past year and half.
Then there are the other numbers that matter. The new wells go down ten to twelve thousand feet to reach shale deposits, turn horizontally, and blast four or five million gallons of water and chemicals into the rock to release gas. Regulations require that protective cement and steel casings extend a minimum of fifty feet below the lowest possible drinking water source.
Landowners and environmentalists worry about those numbers, especially the last one. The worries come out at town hall meetings and smaller gatherings, like on Sally Lytle’s Stark County porch, where she is chatting with neighbors. “I want protection more than fifty feet below the water table, because while I know we don’t feel it, the fracking is like mini-earthquakes down there and it certainly is going to rattle those pipes. “
An even bigger concern is what is in fracking water. Drillers add chemicals to help make the shale break. Regulator Tomastik and others say the final brew is largely non-toxic, but as much as 5 percent can include potential poisons and carcinogens, like barium and strontium metals.
Lytle and her neighbors are concerned. “Well, how many gallons is five percent of four million gallons? We’re not talking about a cup full of these chemicals. We’re talking about thousands of gallons.” And, just what chemicals are involved is not entirely clear because drilling companies don’t have to reveal their formulas, considered “trade secrets.” Vanessa Pesec of NEOGAP, and Ohio environmental group formed to monitor the oil and gas industry explains what she and her colleagues see as a big gap in regulations to protect the public. “The oil and gas industry is exempt from the federal clean water act, the clean air act, the safe drinking water act, the toxic release inventory, the resource regional recovery act, and the Super Fund act. They said ‘let the states take care of it.’ And yet our state has not sufficiently put in guidelines.”
Where Does It All Go?
In Ohio, what ultimately happens to the “fracking” water—chemicals and all--when the drilling is done often comes down to three things. Some is recycled, trucked to new sites. Some goes into settling ponds. And some is pumped into deep “injection wells.” Those are either old wells that no longer produce gas and oil or new specially drilled ones that go into rock. Ohio has about 2,000 of the wells already, with more scheduled to be drilled. And, because Pennsylvania and West Virginia have few such sites, fracking operations there are sending millions of gallons of their waste fluids to Ohio for disposal. Tomastik says that can’t be stopped because it is interstate commerce allowed and protected by federal law. But, Alan Wenger, an attorney who specializes in mineral leasing in Ohio says both production and injection wells are covered by state law. “…Ohio code has remediation and fairly strict requirements for plugging of wells…that is a permitted and inspected process…so there is some protection at the far end.
The drilling companies emphasize what they say is the relative safety of their fracking wells, saying there has never been a case of drinking water contamination from fracking itself. But they’re fracking narrowly, as just the rock cracking activity at the bottom of wells, thousands of feet below any water tables. What higher up along the well pipe, and to the case, and on the ground above can be another story… as evidence by a blowout at a fracking well in Canton, Pennsylvania this spring. Things can go wrong. Kent State geologist Neil Wells “So, in theory it’s a fairly simple, clean, self-contained thing. You’ve probably heard the expression the difference between theory and practice is that in theory they’re the same but in practice they aren’t."
Burden of Proof
Thousands of complaints about polluted water supplies have been associated with the horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing boom in Pennsylvania where Marcellus shale is even more abundant than in Ohio. But, only a small number of those claims led to settlements. Many things affect water wells—common things around farms for example, like fertilizer--so proving that fracking ruined a well can be nearly impossible. As can be affording the costs of experts needed to investigate. Alan Wenger says landowners can work some protections into their lease deals with drillers. “Contracts that have been agreed to by some of the responsible lessees include reverse the burden. And if there has been an impact on the quality or quantity of the water it’s presumed that it WAS caused by the drilling activity. And the which is fairer to the landowner because of the huge financial burden of proving these things.”
Private water supplies aren’t the only issues that come with fracking. Ohio’s GOP lawmakers have opened all state parks and wildlife preserves to drilling – over fierce objections that the move jeopardizes the aesthetics and environments of the parks.
The Legislature also has approved a bill that gives any company the right to draw 5 million gallons a day out of Lake Erie without a permit. It’s a big plus for a type of drilling that relies on heavily on massive amounts of water; but other Great Lakes states and even Ohio’s former GOP governors say the limit is too high, and too risky.
Still, for Sally Lytle, her neighbors, and hundreds of other residents of southern Stark and northern Carroll County, assurances by the fracking industry are enough for now. They’ve signed their leases with Chesapeake Energy opening their properties to fracking, and hoping the deals they’ve made include enough environmental, legal and economic protections to last them a lifetime – and beyond.