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How significant is ODNR’s announcement linking fracking to the Poland earthquakes, and how does the agency plan to approach the problem in the future?
Obviously, it says a lot that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources made a public statement establishing a “probable” link between hydraulic fracturing and a series of low-magnitude earthquakes in Poland Township in March.
ODNR was the first government agency in the country to connect fracking to seismic activity, making Ohio the first state in the U.S. to document a case of fracking-induced seismicity. The only other documented cases occurred in British Columbia and the United Kingdom.
Both ODNR and industry advocates have urged the public to use perspective when examining the case.
In the fourth quarter of 2013, there were 352 active wells drilled in Ohio. Those produced 1.4 million barrels of oil and 43 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and only one was linked to tremors.
Still, of the six active wells drilled in Mahoning County, one — or about 17 percent — has caused earthquakes. After the 2012 injection-well quakes, the recent news has led some to wonder if the geology of this area is conducive to fracking.
Fewer wells have been drilled here because the shale formation is narrower and at a shallower depth than it is in the southern tier of the play, making it harder for drillers to access trapped hydrocarbons.
Mike Chadsey, a spokesman for the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said the problem of earthquakes would be contained to this area, and he didn’t expect the high-producing wells in the south to encounter the same problems.
To be safe, ODNR established new permit conditions for companies applying to drill wells in areas prone to seismic activity.
The requirements — the first of their kind — will demand that companies seeking horizontal-drilling permits within three miles of known faults or in the vicinity of seismic events greater than a 2.0 magnitude to install “sensitive” seismic monitors.
If the monitors detect movement of a magnitude of more than 1.0, drilling and related activities would have to stop while the quakes are investigated. Drilling would be suspended if fracturing is determined to be the cause.
Officials said additional monitoring would provide a range of new data points, giving regulators a more comprehensive picture of current faults in underlying rock formations.
But fracking opponents said, while the rules are a step in the right direction, they don’t go far enough in preventing future quakes.
Additionally, not much is known about the underlying geology in eastern Ohio because seismic-reflection data is gathered by private companies, which contract with drillers.
It is held as proprietary, and ODNR argues they do not have the authority under current Ohio law to compel companies to turn that information over in the permitting process.
A potential source for a better understanding of the geology comes in the proposed severance tax on unconventional producers. The legislation, being considered at the Ohio Statehouse, would provide funding for the state’s geological survey program, in addition to capping orphan wells and providing a statewide tax cut.
Fracking opponents have seized on the negative press surrounding the earthquakes in their push to pass a charter amendment that would ban fracking within Youngstown’s city limits, arguing that it cannot be done safely and that it poses a threat to the water supply in Meander Reservoir.
It remains to be seen just how much of an impact the headlines will have on the May 6 vote, but the measure has failed twice before, even after voters learned of the injection-well-linked quakes and the illegal dumping of fracking wastewater in a tributary of the Mahoning River.
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