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DISASTER WAITING TO HAPPEN?


Published: Fri, September 28, 2012 @ 12:00 a.m.

Have regulations made industry safer? Or is it a ...

By Burton Speakman

bspeakman@shalesheet.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Despite the fervor over the “new” oil and gas industry coming to Ohio, the state has long been the home of wells and, accordingly, rules and regulations governing the industry.

The past has been marked by well fires, pollution and even explosions, however infrequent.

So, the question remains: Have new regulations made the industry safer or could disaster happen again?

WELL CONSTRUCTION

A house in Geauga County exploded Dec. 15, 2007, in Bainbridge Township near the site of a vertically fracked well. The two residents in the home at the time of the explosion were not injured, but the house had significant damage, according to Ohio Department of Natural Resources records.

Early in the investigation, investigators recognized that natural gas was entering homes via water wells. ODNR determined that accumulation and confinement of deep, high-pressure gas combined with a poor cement casing of the English No.1 Well, between Nov. 13, 2007, and Dec. 15, 2007, resulted in too much pressure which caused the gas to escape into the water table.

ODNR cited three factors that led to gas invading shallow aquifers: Inadequate cementing of the production casing before remedial cementing; the decision to frack the well without addressing the issue of minimal cement behind the production casing; and the 31-day period after fracking where high pressure gas was kept within a restricted space with insufficient concrete.

There were 22 domestic and one public water supply that were contaminated in the incident, according to ODNR. This is the only incident since 1984 that ODNR has documented in which natural gas invaded groundwater aquifers as the result of a deficient cement job. Although the incident occurred in vertical well the resulting changes impacted both vertical and horizontal drilling in Ohio.

Immediately after Bainbridge, the industry and the state began working together to make sure an incident like this would not happen again, said Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

“We created some calculations that had to be made for cement jobs and if they weren’t met there would have to be remedial action,” Stewart said. “We also stepped up the notice procedure to allow the state to be there to attend, inspect and witness the most crucial steps in the construction of a well.”

Those crucial steps include the installation of the pipe and the surface casing, Stewart added. Then in the next legislative session, SB 165 was designed to create new laws that dealt with well construction language to formalize urbanized drilling. It also increased funding for regulatory oversight of the oil and gas industry paid for by increasing the severance tax paid by oil and gas producers.

The most recent change occurred with SB 315, which went into effect in June, which added additional safety measures in both the drilling process and injection well controls, he said. Companies under this legislation have to provide the Ohio Department of Natural Resources with significant amounts of information about the drilling and construction of a well to make sure risks are minimized.

Dan Alfaro, spokesman for Energy in Depth-Ohio, an industry group, said Ohio’s regulations lead developing states.

Ohio requires companies to meet more standards than federal law, industry best practices or even the Environmental Defense funds regulatory framework, he said. Casing in Ohio must be placed to depths more than 450 feet lower than the deepest water wells in the state.

“The required depth of this casing ensures the protection of our water resources — a priority for every developer — and is furthered by Ohio’s strict casing cement standards,” Alfaro said.

The process also requires press testing for casing that is unlike anywhere else in the U.S.

The Environmental Defense Fund has determined it supports natural gas as a cleaner alternative to coal, but the group is still calling for strenuous controls to ensure safety precautions are taken.

Poor well construction and operation can lead to groundwater contamination and to blowouts that can endanger lives and foul the surface environment, according to a article written by Eric Pooley, senior vice president of strategy and communications.

“In response, EDF is working with regulators and key stakeholders to strengthen rules for proper construction and operation of hydraulically fractured wells. While stronger regulatory oversight of well construction is needed, no one should try to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is risk free. Both aspects of well development need strong oversight,” he wrote.

INJECTION WELLS

Issues associated with injection wells in Ohio have consisted of the 13 earthquakes that ODNR determined were caused by D&L Energy Inc.’s Youngstown brine-injection well on Ohio Works Drive which was used for disposal of brine, or fracking wastewater.

Seismic activity started March 17, 2011, and continued through Jan. 13 of this year.

The D&L Youngstown well is one of 177 deep injection wells in Ohio. Injection wells are a disposal method for brine, which is the salty water containing chemicals and possibly other hazardous materials that returns to the surface following the fracking process. D&L drilled the nearly 9,300-foot well into the Precambrian bedrock formation about 9,000 feet below ground in the Mahoning Valley.

The fact that D&L’s well reached the depths of Precambrian bedrock formation was likely the cause of seismic activity, but earthquakes are rarely caused that way, said Carlo LoParo, spokesman for ODNR after the agency determined the well was the likely cause for the earthquakes.

LoParo added that D&L Energy complied with all regulatory standards but likely hit an unmapped fault, which triggered the earthquakes.

Since those incidents, several new rules for injection wells have been approved that ODNR states will prevent future earthquakes. They include the ODNR chief being able to require tests or evaluation of any well. Geological testing must be done to prevent any fault activity and each site must also have a plan for monitoring seismic activity.

Injection wells should also have an automatic shut-off device that will stop injection if its exceeds the maximum allowable injection pressure.

PIPELINE PROBLEMS

The next step of the oil and gas industry in Mahoning Valley is the construction of pipeline.

Pipelines are not new to Ohio, but there has been some history of issues. Springfield Township officials have stated they are the preferred destination of planned new gathering pipeline infrastructure between Northeast Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

The project is a combined effort of Nisource Midsteam and Hilcorp Energy Co. John Bonn, president of NiSource Midstream Services, said previously the total investment in new infrastructure to help deliver Ohio Utica shale gas to markets would be between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

Pipelines have not been without risk. The two most basic types of lines are gathering lines. These are the lines that come from the well head and take gas away. Transmission lines transport natural gas to homes.

Balls of fire were visible for miles as the result of a pipeline explosion in February 2011 near Hanoverton in Columbiana County. The explosion was caused by failed 36-inch buried transmission line.

Then, in November 2011, flames shot hundreds of feet into the air when another transmission line failed near the Athens-Morgan county line near Glouster.

Two residents were injured in that incident, and one person was treated for respiratory symptoms.

The state has also made some changes to the pipelines to increase safety, Stewart said. Nonregulated pipelines in rural areas now have to be constructed to the same standards of pipelines in more populated higher-risk areas. These higher standards require pipelines in the state to be built with higher maximum-operating pressures and using more-stringent corrosion controls. Companies also have to test the pipelines for leakage and maintain records of those tests for five years.

“They’re higher than the federal standards,” he said. “They don’t have to be built to the standards of transmission pipelines, but they’re close.”


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