By Jamison Cocklin
Although the flaring has stopped at an oil and gas well operated by Halcon Resources Corp. on Brunstetter Road, and things are quieting down for hundreds of residents nearby, more drilling eventually could occur at the site.
Since the beginning of the year, the Kibler 1H well has been a thorn in the side of those living at the Westwood Lake Mobile Home Park in Weathersfield Township, where about 335 homes stand and more than 700 people live, according to park management.
A map of the drilling unit, included in documents obtained by The Vindicator, clearly shows that the center of the park is roughly 800 feet from the well pad. Though the site is in Lordstown, it straddles the line between the village and Weathersfield. The closest property at Westwood Lake, unleased by Halcon and not included in the drilling unit, is about 500 feet from the pad.
Since April, a handful of residents have aired a litany of complaints at Trumbull County commissioners’ meetings and placed numerous calls to newsrooms throughout the Mahoning Valley and beyond, hoping their grievances will be heard by the public.
Bright lights, loud noises, sleep deprivation, headaches, nausea and a general concern for children playing near the well site are only some of the problems residents say they’ve contended with.
The concerns reached a fever pitch at the end of June, when over the course of nearly two weeks, Halcon set to flaring the well after it was completed. The process is commonplace in the industry. Gas from the well is fed through a stack at varying volumes and velocities to test its flow and composition before production.
The noise was likened to a siren by those living at the park and described as “atrocious” by others. Some expressed grave concerns over the fumes wafting into the park.
The situation at Westwood Lake has tempered for now, but looking back on what residents dealt with for months brings into sharp relief the intersection at which state regulators, oil and gas companies and Ohioans will be forced to cross as drilling moves into urban areas across the Utica Shale play.
The Kibler 1H is well within the limits of the law, and the conflict between residents and Houston-based Halcon could be a sign of what’s to come as operators move into urban residential areas in Mahoning and Trumbull counties.
Though there are exceptions, state law requires that homes not in a drilling unit must be set back between 150 and 200 feet from a well pad. At 800 feet, the Westwood Lake Mobile Home Park was close, but not close enough for regulators to deny Halcon’s permit for the site.
“I believe regulators at ODNR handle permitting in a cold and calculated way. In terms of meeting setback requirements from property lines, it’s black and white,” said Alan Wenger, chair of the oil and gas law practice group at Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell. “In the discretionary areas, it’s either in or outside that range, and that’s the way they see their obligation. I don’t think they do much more than look at a map. The rules are very sparse in Ohio.”
Mark Bruce, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, said regulators have little choice and must permit a well site according to state law.
“Employees in the division take the necessary and appropriate time to closely evaluate all permit applications in the state,” he said. “ODNR’s responsibility is to properly regulate the oil and gas industry by enforcing the laws and rules of the state of Ohio. If the applicant satisfies those requirements, we are obligated to issue a permit.”
Bruce said an inspector was dispatched to the Lords- town site to measure the setbacks and ensure that all distances included on Halcon’s permit application were accurate.
Halcon now has a request for unit operations at the Kibler site pending with ODNR. Under a state law referred to as unitization, Halcon wants to pool landowners in a 630-acre swath into one drilling unit so it can drill a second well from the Kibler pad near the mobile home park, according to a request filed with ODNR on March 28.
A unitized pad allows oil and gas companies to minimize surface disruption and maximize their return. If tests at the well prove promising and unit operations are granted, the company will go forward with a second well, according to testimony from a Halcon reservoir engineer included in the company’s unit request.
Halcon spokesman Vince Bevacqua said he wasn’t sure if any more wells would be drilled at the site, but he pointed out that urban drilling is not a new phenomenon in Ohio.
“Obviously, there’s some noise at the site, and the company is aware of that,” Bevacqua said. “They want to minimize it as much as can be done. There’s no danger and no environmental, land, air or water issues in that area. People are inconvenienced to be sure — but they’re not in any kind of danger.”
Frank Fuda, a Trumbull County commissioner, said the company has been cooperative. He said commissioners are exploring options to reduce noise at the site, but he added that the situation has been difficult for local officials to handle.
“It’s kind of frustrating; we have no authority locally; it all comes from the state,” Fuda said. “They control everything that happens. We do the best we can and relay those concerns to our state legislators.”
For John Williams, a member of FrackFree Mahoning Valley who has worked closely to aid residents at the park, the situation highlights a multitude of problems related to oil and gas drilling.
“This is just ODNR not thinking. I don’t know if they don’t have the experience or they think these are the same as [vertical] wells,” Williams said. “How could they think it would be OK to flare there and put the tank batteries on the border of the park without green-completion equipment. Once those wells are done, they will emit pollution 24/7.”
Green-completion equipment captures gas and condensate released during the drilling process, and operators will be required to use the equipment beginning in 2015.
Last year, the World Bank estimated that the flaring of gas adds the equivalent of 70 million additional cars to the roads.
For now, Halcon will install a well head at the site, and conditions are expected to be quiet from this point on, Bevacqua said.
In the meantime, Fuda said residents will be informed of any new drilling or other disruptive activities at the site.
“Nobody thought we would have those kind of problems in Weathersfield. We haven’t seen anything like that at other wells in the county,” Fuda said. “But drilling is new to all of us, and we’re keeping up with it and learning as we go.”