Ohio State University researchers want to install and study a working oil and gas well on university land in Noble County.
The plan would open the school’s Eastern Agricultural Research Station to shale drilling and would provide an opportunity to closely examine how fracking alters the environment and to assess pollution risks to the air and groundwater, supporters say.
“It really comes out of the frustration that researchers have had in getting access to [drill] sites and being able to do constructive research,” said Jeff Daniels, director of Ohio State’s Subsurface Energy Resource Center.
The idea is similar to a University of Tennessee plan to study fracking on 8,600 acres the school owns in that state’s Cumberland Forest.
However, environmental advocates call the Tennessee project a thinly disguised effort to collect millions of dollars through a lucrative contract with drilling companies.
“It is indeed about the money,” said Anne Davis, managing attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center in Nashville.
Davis said the University of Tennessee can’t conduct credible research because it would be funded by a mineral-rights lease with the highest-bidding drilling company. The university plans to name the winning bidder in October.
“If problems were discovered with the fracking and it stopped, then the payments would stop,” Davis said.
University officials said the project will provide solid data on changes to the air, water, land and wildlife wrought by shale drilling and fracking.
Ohio State’s Daniels and William Brown, the University of Tennessee’s dean of research and director of the school’s Agricultural Experiment Station, both said there is no realistic way to separate industry from their proposed experiments.
Fracking requires a 200-foot-tall drilling rig and a set of industrial pumps to send millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals below ground to shatter the shale and free trapped oil and gas.
Daniels and Brown said scientists simply don’t know how to drill and frack a well.
“So it’s imperative that we develop mechanisms where we have public-private partnerships that maintain the unbiased and objective nature of the university,” Brown said.
The proposed shale well is one of several OSU research projects related to drilling and fracking.
Ohio State’s Shale Water Management Research Cluster is researching ways to estimate the impact of water withdrawals from lakes and streams as well as how to treat waste fluids that bubble out of fracked shale wells. The university owns 780 acres of mineral rights at the Noble County research station, said Steven Slack, director of the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center in Wooster.