Photo: Environmental groups are calling for a ban on fracking in Ohio after a series of small earthquakes erupted near an active fracking site last week.
By Mike Ludwig
Beaver County Blue via Truthout
March 18, 2014 – Ohio regulators ordered the Texas-based firm Hilcorp Energy to shut down its fracking operations in rural northeastern Ohio after five temblors ranging from 2.1 to 3.0 in magnitude were recorded March 10 and March 11 in the area. The US Geological Survey reported that the epicenter of the first and largest quake was directly below a landfill where Hilcorp was fracking. Local residents felt the quakes but did not report any serious damage.
Officials with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), which regulates oil and gas production in the state, said initial data indicated that the earthquakes were not related to drilling wastewater injection wells, which have been linked to small earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma and other states. If investigators link the quakes to Hilcorp’s production operations, it would be the first time that the fracking process has directly caused documented earthquakes in Ohio, if not the entire United States.
Fracking involves forcing millions of gallons of water and chemicals into underground wells to break up rock and release oil and natural gas. Wastewater that returns to the surface during the operation often is disposed of in underground injection wells. Ohio has become a popular destination for the waste, and more than 180 injection wells store waste across the state.
In a statement released last week, ODNR spokesman Mark Bruce said that it would be "premature to speculate about these events until our data gathering and analysis is complete."
Environmentalists in Ohio, however, are already going on the offensive against the regulatory agency, which they say has a reputation for working closely with the industry.
"In asserting that these quakes are in no way linked to nearby oil and gas waste injection wells, the ODNR is confusing the issue," said Alison Auciello, the Ohio organizer for the watchdog group Food and Water Watch. "The ODNR’s quick decision to shut down all drilling in the area clearly implies that it suspects that the quakes are linked to injections of fracking fluid."
Auciello said that, whether the earthquakes were caused by waste fluid injection or the fracking process itself, Ohio Gov. John Kasich should ban the practice because no amount of regulation can predict or prevent manmade earthquakes.
State Rep. Bob Hagan, a Democrat who represents the Youngstown area, said he has asked the ODNR for more information on the earthquakes but the agency has been unresponsive.
"Very sad about the inability of ODNR to be forthright on information regarding the quakes in an area that has never had quakes," Hagan said in an email to Truthout. "Question is: Just who is ODNR protecting? Our natural resources or our gas and oil industry? As long as they continue to stonewall on that question, it is only right for us to assume the latter."
Won-Young Kim, a seismologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said last week that multiple earthquakes occurred in the area in the week leading up to the temblors felt by residents last week. Kim estimates that 11 seismic events, not five, occurred in a week’s time. Kim said that once earthquakes are triggered, the frequency of similar seismic activity tends to increase.
"It is wise to make a full stop, no more drilling or injection at the site," Kim told a local newspaper in Ohio. "We learned from Youngstown in 2011 that earthquakes can be triggered by fluid injected into [an] area with the subsurface weak zone [faults]."
A fracking wastewater injection well near Youngstown caused a series of small earthquakes in 2011, including a 4.0 magnitude temblor that was felt for miles.
ODNR officials initially said there was no connection between the earthquake and injection wells and even allowed the operator of the well that caused the earthquakes to increase maximum pressure in the well after the initial tremors occurred. State officials changed their tune in early 2012 after investigators confirmed that wastewater from the injection well lubricated a fault and caused the earthquakes.
Kasich and the ODNR recently came under fire from anti-fracking activists after environmental groups released an internal ODNR memo suggesting that the Kasich administration should work closely with the fracking industry to roll out a public relations campaign to sell Ohioans on oil and gas development in state parks. The 2010 public relations plan was never implemented. After taking a black eye in the media, Kasich reversed his position and said he does not support fracking in state parks.
Mike Ludwig is a Truthout reporter. Follow Mike on Twitter @ludwig_mike.