By Ed Runyan
Ted Auch, the new Ohio program coordinator for the FracTracker Alliance, fills the expectations the Raymond John Wean Foundation set for its bottom-floor incubator.
Auch, a 36-year-old Vermont native who has a doctoral degree in ecological modeling, is coordinating the nonprofit organization studying the hydraulic-fracturing industry. He works from one of the six offices there as well as visiting other oil and gas locations in the state.
The Wean Foundation took a damp and dingy basement space and turned it into one of the coolest nonprofit-organization incubator spaces possible.
It has 2-inch-thick exposed beams and exposed limestone-and-mortar walls dating to the Civil War along with contemporary furnishings and office space.
Auch was hired by the Pittsburgh-based Frac-Tracker to extend the organization’s research of the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania into Ohio’s Utica Shale play.
But unlike much of the talk about drilling, groundwater and injection wells, Auch says FracTracker’s focus is on science.
And he thinks that’s why the Wean Foundation “took us in,” he said in a recent interview.
“They saw that we’re not going to go up on a drilling rig and lock ourself down on it. We’re trying to use data to make that same case that those folks locking themselves to drill rigs are making.”
FracTracker chose Warren to establish its office because of the amenities the foundation provided at the incubator.
The Wean Foundation created the offices at its West Market Street downtown location when it carried out its $2.5 million renovation there last year.
The foundation said the incubator’s purpose is to encourage the growth of nonprofits that can help the Mahoning Valley.
“I see us as giving them the tools to improve the community,” Gordon B. Wean, chairman of the board of the foundation, said at the grand opening of the foundation’s offices last July.
Auch said the incubator not only provides a great office equipped with all the technology he needs, but it also has a conference room and a meeting room on the floor above that can accommodate 120 people.
Auch plans to use that meeting room when he has a conference Friday and Saturday for activists and environmental groups. It’s called “Unconventional Shale Drilling: A Science/Technology, Health, Environmental, Economics and Policy Discussion: What We Know! What We Don’t Know! What We Need to Know Before Moving Forward.”
Auch says FracTracker believed that to attract someone with the right credentials to operate its Ohio office, “you want to give them incentives to come here.”
“It’s the best office I’ve ever had,” Auch said. It also has an exercise room, break room, work room with printer and copier and shower room.
Besides FracTracker, the incubator is used by Trumbull Neighborhood Partnership, a nonprofit group employing young professionals working to improve Warren neighborhoods.
And the Tech Belt Energy Innovation Center is using an office in the incubator until its offices a few doors down on West Market Street are ready. The TBEIC serves entrepreneurs seeking to develop business opportunity in energy and natural resources.
The nonprofit Mahoning Valley College Access Program also uses an office to provide counseling and scholarships to encourage Warren, Youngstown and Columbiana County high school students to attend college.
As for FracTracker, Auch says he spends much of his time trying to uncover “true production rates” for the gas and oil wells already in operation in Ohio and providing maps and visual representations of them on its website, www.FracTracker.org.
He also studies and presents data on the movement of brine and solids from wells to injection wells and waste landfills.
Though FracTracker tries to “focus on the data and what does the data say,” it’s no secret that FracTracker sides with the people who have questions about the environmental impacts of drilling, Auch said.
FracTracker also believes that the data that the oil and gas industry provide aren’t “the complete story,” Auch said. “We’re trying to fill in the data gaps,” he said, adding that the information could help someone get higher royalties or signing bonus on their land.
Auch said he thinks FracTracker can help Ohioans in the new oil and gas plays to foresee the impacts of the industry.
“The industry is presenting itself as a panacea for all things,” Auch said, adding that the people “who really have a finger on the pulse and have seen other boom- bust cycles understand that’s just not possible.”
Auch said he doesn’t know just how much of a positive economic impact the oil and gas industry will have in Ohio, in part because the industry doesn’t share its data with the public.
He says the gas and oil companies are not giving the Ohio Department of Natural Resources the oil- and gas- production information it is required to provide, and he doesn’t think state officials are inclined to force the issue.
“We don’t have access to the kind of data industry has,” Auch said. Despite the number of producing wells in Ohio, he has been able to get access to data on only 33 wells, he said.
He also believes the industry is turning in data that inflate production numbers.
“They have never reported anything to us under, say, 1,500 barrels of oil equivalency in test runs,” he said.
“I’m pretty sure, based on other states, that there are wells out there they tried and they either failed or gave them 200, 300, 400, 500 barrels of oil. We don’t ever get those numbers. We only get the 2,000 and up to 12,000” barrels, he said.
FracTracker receives much of its funding from the Gund Foundation and the Heinz Foundation.