In another blow to the natural gas extraction technique known as fracking, officials in Ohio now say wastewater produced by the popular process is likely responsible for a rash of recent earthquakes.
The conclusions will almost surely fuel a debate over the tradeoffs between economic rewards and environmental risks that has raged in states across the Midwest and mid-Atlantic region.
The findings, released late last week by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, show that a disposal well appears to be the culprit in the dozen tremors since March 2011, including the 4.0 quake that shook Youngstown on New Year’s Eve. State officials stressed that while “induced earthquakes” are extremely rare, they can be triggered under specific circumstances - all of which appear to have been met by the well in question.
Most important, the well was constructed on a tract where “no fault line had been previously mapped,” but further research has shown that such a line exists. The injection well was also drilled “deep enough and near enough” to the fault and pumped “a sufficient quantity of fluids at high enough pressure” to cause a disturbance, the report concluded.
Other “coincidental circumstances” also point to the disposal well, including the fact that it went into operation just three months before the first temblor and that all of the seismic events were “clustered” around that area, officials said.
In the days following the study’s release, both sides of the fracking debate - environmentalists who believe it is inherently dangerous and proponents who cite the economic benefits it has already generated across the nation - have claimed victory.
“The report … states that all the evidence indicates that properly located injection wells will not cause earthquakes,” said Terry Fleming, executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council. “Man-made earthquakes have been known for some time, from dam-building to geothermal projects. Geologists involved in this isolated report concluded that it’s very difficult for all conditions to be met to induce seismic events.”
Industry insiders point out that fracking itself - the use of water, sand and chemical cocktails to crack underground rock and release trapped reserves of natural gas - was not responsible for the quakes, as some have claimed. They also note that many companies recycle and reuse the millions of gallons of water needed to frack a well, rather than using the cheaper method of pumping the used fluids back into the ground.
But critics contend the Ohio findings are proof that gas companies can’t be relied upon to act responsibly, and that stronger regulations at both the state and federal levels are needed.
“Ohio kept on drilling these wells at a faster and faster pace. If you continually play with fire, you will eventually get burnt,” the Ohio Environmental Council said in a statement. “There is still no indication that the state of Ohio is willing to take a step back and think about the big picture of laying down proactive, protective regulations that will prevent bad things from happening in the first place.”
Along with its findings, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources also released broad new regulations to ensure that fracking waste disposal is done safely.
The state will now require a review of all geologic data “for known faulted areas within the state” and will prohibit companies from drilling injection wells in those areas. Companies must also install “continuous pressure monitoring systems,” automatic shut-offs when pressure gets dangerously high, and electronic data-recording systems to track all fluids deposited in the ground.
The fracking-related quakes are the latest events to cast doubt on the safety of the practice. Last year, the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft report blaming the process for water contamination in Pavillion, Wyo. Industry leaders have strongly disputed the results of that study, and the agency is expected to commission an independent, third-party review of its findings in the near future.