By Karl Henkel
The Mahoning Valley’s latest earthquake — a magnitude 2.1 early Friday — wasn’t significant enough to shake many area homes, but it was apparently big enough to rattle state Rep. Robert F. Hagan all the way in New York.
Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, upon hearing the news, fired off a tweet calling for the state to halt all oil-and-gas drilling activities.
“What does [the Ohio Department of Natural Resources] know about earthquakes?” he typed, referencing the state agency’s stance that brine injection wells do not cause earthquakes. “[Youngstown] quake? Moratorium now!”
Hagan on Monday backed up that statement and told The Vindicator there’s no coincidence between an injection well and eight Valley earthquakes in eight months — the first quakes known to epicenter in the area.
“Injection wells have been around for some time,” Hagan said. “On the other hand, earthquakes have not.”
ODNR has said there is no evidence linking injection wells to earthquakes, but that hasn’t stopped it from requiring Youngstown-based D&L Energy, which operates a 9,000-foot deep well on Ohio Works Drive, to test and possibly plug the bottom 250 feet of that well to “alleviate any perceived [earthquake] accusations.”
Seven of the eight earthquakes have had epicenters near the well; the latest had an epicenter just a few blocks from the well site.
Hagan said he wants a moratorium on all oil-and gas-related activities, including injection wells, until there is evidence that drilling operations can continue safely.
Brine-injection wells are used to dispose of wastewater from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a process in which water, chemicals and sand are blasted through pipes into rocks thousands of feet below the ground to unlock natural gas and oil. The wells are constructed with steel casing and cement to protect against contaminated water entering the ground.
“I’m not opposed to drilling,” Hagan said. “I’m opposed to moving too fast and finding out at a later date that it’s too late.”
Part of that testing, at least regarding the earthquakes, is the addition of at least two seismic stations, said Susie Beiersdorfer, a geology instructor at Youngstown State University who previously worked in the oil and gas industry.
“[More seismic testing] is the next logical step,” she said. “There’s a lot of coincidental evidence.”
Gathering data from three local seismographs can help pinpoint the exact depths of earthquakes, which have been estimated to be 5 kilometers below the ground, 7,500 feet below the lowest point of the D&L well.
Another theory about the cause of the earthquakes is that an ancient buried fault line lies deep beneath the Mahoning Valley.
Those fault lines would be part of the Precambrian rock formation about 9,000 feet below the ground.
The D&L well may be injecting fluid into that impermeable formation, prompting the ODNR- requested test.
If that’s the case, ODNR may have more questions to answer. Two more wells — in Beaver and Coitsville townships — have been permitted to drill 9,300 feet deep.
If drilled to that depth, they would be the two deepest Class II injection wells in Ohio.
ODNR did not provide an immediate response as to whether it will modify those injection-well permits in lieu of the possible plugging of the bottom of the D&L Youngstown well.
Mike Hansen of the Ohio Seismic Network says that determining ancient faults is “not done easily or cheaply.”
“Most of the faults we know have come as a result of oil and gas drillers,” he said.
This is not a result of the actual drilling, but the seismic testing that drilling companies conduct prior to the start of operations. Hansen said the process is called seismic refraction, where seismic waves are bounced off underground rock layers to determine geological structure.
The state doesn’t have equipment to conduct such tests, Hansen said, but the drilling companies do. That information is “proprietary,” he said and isn’t shared publicly.
Beiersdorfer said that drilling companies should be investigating earthquake and other environmental safety worries.
“I wish they’d spend half as much on safety research as they did on drilling research,” she said.