Ohio, Fracking, and Earthquakes: Taking a Prudent Approach

It’s been announced recently that Ohio has tightened hydraulic fracturing regulations on findings from the state’s Department of Natural Resources linking drilling to seismic activity. The connection between earthquakes and fracking in Ohio, where the state’s Utica shale holds vast reserves of natural gas, has been known for some time. In 2011 it was reported that dozens of small earthquakes had taken place near a wastewater injection well run by Northstar Disposal Services near Youngstown. Seismometers in and around Youngstown recorded 109 earthquakes, the strongest registering a magnitude-3.9 earthquake on December 31, 2011. Prior to 2011, the city had reportedly never experienced seismic activity of any kind. Given the rarity of seismic activity in the region, Ohio Department of Natural Resources in November asked Columbia University's Lamont–Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) to place mobile seismographs in the vicinity to better determine the cause of the earthquakes. Within a matter of days, the team determined with 95 percent certainty that the epicenters of the largest quakes were within 0.8 kilometers of the injection well. The team also determined that the quakes were caused by slippage along a fault at about the same depth as the injection site, almost three kilometers down. The current working explanation is that fracking waste fluid includes chemicals and lubricants that can increase slippage between two abutting rock surfaces when injected deep into faults. It’s not completely clear if the effect is a result of large amounts of water adding increased pressure, actually working as a lubricant between rock faces, or both. But even after injection stopped at the Northstar well, seismic activity continued for some time. Additionally, even if a wastewater disposal well is not directly causing earthquakes, it can make the region responsive to other seismic activity. Past research from the National Science Foundation and U.S. Geological Survey has also showed that larger earthquakes far away from fracking site can lead to slight tremors at injection wells. This has been observed in Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. However, the closure of the Northstar well was not the end for fracking-related earthquakes in Ohio. In fact, the most recent evidence links tremors directly to drilling activity—not just wastewater disposal. State Oil & Gas Chief Rick Simmers says that fracking injections likely triggered a small, unknown fault, causing five small tremors in March. Based on the findings, Ohio has not only placed an indefinite moratorium on drilling at the sites in question, but imposed strengthened permitting conditions. Now, all new drilling sites within three miles of a known fault, or seismic activity of 2.0 magnitude or higher, will require installation of seismic-monitoring equipment. The equipment will report findings directly to regulators, rather than voluntary disclosures from drilling operators. If seismic activity of 1.0 magnitude or greater is felt, drilling will be paused for evaluation, and if a link is found the operation will be halted. There’s enough evidence of a link between fracking and earthquakes that a regulatory response designed around vigilant monitoring and information gathering can actually benefit the industry in the longer-term. “Earthquakes” is a term that tends to provoke fear, and obviously poses a somewhat frightening prospect for populations living near fracking sites. However, it’s worth noting that none of the earthquakes linked to fracking have approached dangerous or destructive levels, at least so far. The largest recorded yet was the 3.9 quake in Youngstown—not enough to threaten people or property in a meaningful way. (For readers who live in the District, the earthquake that hit the D.C. area in July 2011 was a much stronger 5.8). An earthquake which registers 1.0 on the Richter scale is barely even noticeable. A 2.0 quake is about as disruptive as a truck rolling by. At the same time, the more that drillers, the USGS, and local regulators understand about the relationship between fracking and earthquakes, the better. Ohio’s move errs on the side of caution, which is not necessarily a bad thing for producers when public confidence in hydraulic fracturing is not completely established. Ohio isn’t the first state to respond to concerns of fracking induced earthquakes—both Arkansas and Illinois have either placed moratoriums on activities in certain areas or required close monitoring, which could open the door for open collaboration between states seeking to prevent or understand the issue. A framework for this kind of activity was proposed by the Energy Security Leadership Council wrote in A National Strategy for Energy Security: “The Council is concerned that any erosion in public confidence regarding environmental contamination from hydraulic fracturing will lead regulators to restrict access to the resource. New York, Maryland, and municipalities in Pennsylvania have either decided to not allow hydraulic fracturing while studying potential impacts or have banned it outright. The Council believe, however, that public confidence can be enhanced if the states actively review and improve their regulatory programs and adopt best practices to ensure that the local environment is protected and substandard producers are held accountable for their shortcomings.” To address this concern, the report recommended increasing the scope of the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Regulations (STRONGER), in order to establish best practices that are implemented and enforced by the states. STRONGER currently operates with minimal funding from a Department of Energy grant and additional funds from the American Petroleum Institute, and the organization’s primary goal is to prepare guidelines for state oil and natural gas regulatory programs. The report recommended that in addition to bolstering STRONGER’s scope and capabilities, its best practices should include chemical disclosures, surface water testing before and after drilling, wastewater containment, appropriate well casings, and incident reporting. Given recent evidence, state regulators should be open to monitoring seismic activity as well. The National Strategy noted that contamination issues have occurred at a small fraction of fracking wells around the country—the same can be said of seismic activity, but the issues regarding public confidence remain the same.