Compromising between safety and profitability

The Mahoning Valley is poised to gain investment as a Marcellus and Utica shale supply-manufacturing center, but potential investors and Valley residents don’t want to see their investments damaged by earthquakes if it can be avoided.

This month’s local highlights included the announcement of a new VAM USA steel pipe-threading facility in Youngstown; Halcon’s announcement to delay drilling in the northern Trumbull County; Girard City Council’s vote on whether to lease portions of Girard Lakes property to Halcon for a gathering pipeline from northern Trumbull to Lordstown; and, last but not least, a swarm of earthquakes in Poland Township, whose epicenters were located in close proximity to a Hilcorp Utica Shale extraction well.

A little over a week ago, I was wondering what to write about this month. At that time, I was researching natural gas’s role in the conflict between Russia and the Ukraine. World competition for fossil fuels is now fierce. Europe and Asia compete for supply from many of the same regions of the world. Controlling the pipelines that deliver these products is a strategic battle primarily between the European Union and Russia as the United States develops its own resources and China urges Russia to explore Eastern Siberia and westward.

This worldwide energy competition is part of the reason local production efforts are emerging. The U.S. can no longer control world energy distribution as it has.

Key to domestic energy production, the U.S. must strike a compromise between profitability and public safety.

This latest earthquake swarm in Poland Township is an opportunity for industry executives, state and local officials to learn more about the seismic challenges of obtaining domestic energy in the midst of our region’s most-populated areas.

This is not the first time the Mahoning Valley has had a shallow earthquake swarm, whose epicenters were close to a well. In 2011, a total of 11 earthquakes of magnitudes 2 or greater occurred within a mile of a Class II injection well located on Ohio Public Works Drive in Youngstown.

But these latest quakes seem to coincide with the fracking, or stimulation of an extraction well. Not a Class II injection well.

There have been only a few instances — in British Columbia, England and south-central Oklahoma — in which the fracking itself was thought to have induced quakes large enough to be felt.

Seismic data provided by Lamont-Doherty of Columbia University shows that six other tremors occurred in the Poland swarm. Some occurred before the 3.0 magnitude earthquake March 10. This is the second time the Ohio Department of Natural Resources learned of more quakes after a larger earthquake was publicized.

If it can be shown that these quakes were induced by fracking, then earlier seismic monitoring in populated areas must become be a factor in the decision to license a well within a seismically sensitive region.

We have a unique situation here in the Valley that seems to happen rarely in the world. Knowledge gained during this phenomenon could save future life, investment capital, and property not only here, but throughout the world.

The Mahoning Valley region is poised to be the oil and natural gas industry’s version of a regional incubator or nest for production or drilling supplies. Investment for increased infrastructure, both public and private, necessary to support this new nest will not be enhanced by the frequent occurrence of earthquake swarms.

Local officials, ODNR and the oil and natural gas industry need to decide if the profits from a region of the Utica Shale play — which Halcon’s CEO characterized with an expletive — are worth risking future investments as large as the region has had thus far.

An old saying applies: Don’t mess in your nest.

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