Nobody would argue that having clean and plentiful water is far more important to our existence than the energy we derive from oil and natural gas.
As exploration and production activity moves forward with the Utica Shale, it is worthwhile to consider Ohio’s water resources and how they may be affected by the oil and gas industry.
Hydraulic fracturing of unconventional shale requires millions of gallons of water. Does Ohio have enough water to hydraulically fracture all the Utica wells projected to be drilled in the upcoming years?
Considering each well requires between 2 million and 7 million gallons of water for the hydraulic fracturing process and industry projections suggest 2,000 wells drilled by 2015 and upward of 20,000 wells during the next two decades, this is an important question.
Consider these facts: Eastern Ohio receives an average of 38 inches (3.167 feet) of precipitation each year, and approximately 4 million acres of Ohio land is currently under lease for Utica drilling. Based on these numbers, the annual volume of precipitation falling on just the leased acreage is approximately 4 trillion gallons!
If the oil and gas industry uses 1 percent of this water for hydraulic fracturing, there is enough water for more than 8,000 wells each year (at 5 million gallons per well) even though the industry indicates a peak drilling rate of about 2,000 wells per year. I fully support conservation of water resources but, nonetheless, Ohio is blessed with plentiful water and more than enough to accommodate unconventional shale-gas drilling and production.
A successful Utica Shale well will produce natural gas, natural-gas liquids, oil and brine water. In addition, it will produce “flow back” fluids from the hydraulic-fracturing process. All of these fluids are hazardous materials, which if spilled due to accident, equipment failure or negligence, can contaminate our streams and rivers and seep into the ground and contaminate our soils and ground water.
Considering the oil and gas industry’s negative reputation for production fluid spills, it is absolutely imperative that we have sufficiently strong regulations in place to minimize spills and their impact on surface and ground water quality. Strong regulations can help prevent spills, but Ohio needs to monitor the baseline quality of its water resources as evidence for contamination events and the pursuit of legal corrective action.
The key to protecting our surface and ground water resources is through monitoring water quantity and quality. The United States Geological Survey maintains 437 stream gage stations within the state of Ohio for monitoring water quantity (stream discharge).
Although the case can be made that more gage stations are needed, we have a pretty good handle on surface water quantity. Water-quality monitoring is a different issue in that water sampling and analysis is necessary for establishing the existence of contaminants in water and determining possible sources of contamination.
Municipalities that maintain municipal water sources such as surface reservoirs and groundwater pumping stations to provide water to its residents have an obligation to protect the water source against contamination. Individuals that rely on water wells and springs for their water source have a personal responsibility for documenting their water quality.
Although water-quality analysis does not prevent contamination events, it does provide legal avenues to correct or mitigate the situation.
The Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, along with the Ohio Department of Health and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources recommend a standard three-tiered approach to water-quality sampling and monitoring. The system originally was developed by Penn State University in response to Marcellus Shale drilling and contamination concerns.
The concept is to provide a baseline of water quality through a minimum of two seasonal water samples. County Health organizations including those in Columbiana, Mahoning, Trumbull and Portage counties provide these services at a reasonable cost.
The three-tier system consists of three individual and progressively more definitive sets sampling parameters. Tier one consists on nine basic water-quality parameters that include potential indicators of oil- and gas-related contamination such as total dissolved solids (TDS), barium, chloride and strontium.
Tier two adds eight additional parameters including bromide, a naturally occurring substance of brine water.
Tier three targets specific oil- and gas-related organic compounds such as dissolved methane gas, along with benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. The presence of any of these tier-three parameters is a direct indicator of petroleum related contamination.
Although baseline water-monitoring programs provide the best legal protection of water resources, they do not necessarily provide legal solutions. Citizens and health organizations need to realize that Ohio’s overall water quality has been negatively affected by previous mining activities, traditional oil and gas production, industrial activity, business, agriculture and natural seepage of methane gas. The success of a legal case will depend on the quality of evidence, an attorney with experience in such matters and the expert testimony of a qualified geologist.