Positive impact since quake proves value of regulation
Many of us have no trouble recollecting precisely where we were and what we were doing when the earth beneath us suddenly shaked, rattled and rolled in the Mahoning Valley on New Year’s Eve day in 2011.
That disconcerting jolt that lasted mere seconds shortly after 3 p.m. Dec. 31, 2011, shattered windows, knocked pictures from walls and frayed many nerves. Fortunately, however, the temblor did not result in any serious injuries or major damage, and it brought about needed increased attention on links between drilling activities and seismic upheavals.
Five years later, the ties between injection wells and hydraulic fracturing to tremors have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. More importantly, the state of Ohio has risen as a responsible national leader in implementing sensible regulations to minimize risks to public health and safety caused by human- induced quakes linked to drilling.
The Youngstown-centered earthquake of five years ago Saturday culminated what The Vindicator then called “The Year of the Earthquakes” in the Mahonnig Valley. It was the final and by far the strongest seismic jolt of 11 others – most of them so small they could not be felt – that were recorded in the Valley in 2011.
After thorough study by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas, the source of the Dec. 31 quake was traced to a 9,000-foot-deep D&L Energy Inc. injection well in Youngstown, which was used for brine disposal in the hydraulic fracturing process of mining for oil and natural gas.
It is indeed noteworthy that since the last aftershocks of that quake in January 2012, no earthquakes large enough to be felt triggered by injection wells have been recorded in the Valley or the state, according to Jim Zehringer, ODNR director.
That laudable safety record can be attributed, at least in part, to the quick, decisive action by ODNR to shut down the D&L well and then later to implement a series of regulatory reforms to safeguard public health and the environment.
ODNR acted with similar speed and alacrity in the spring of 2014 when a magnitude-3.0 quake linked to fracking shook Poland Township. That and subsequent aftershocks were associated with deep drilling by Hilcorp. Energy Co. at the Carbon Limestone landfill. ODNR said that spring that fracking likely aggravated a small, previously undetected fault. The agency then used its authority to immediately suspend operations there.
Since those shake-up calls in 2011 and 2014, Zehringer and Rick Simmers, director of ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas, have exercised strong and responsive leadership to prevent similar or more intense human-induced earthquakes from rocking the Valley’s terrain. Some of those initiatives include:
Crafting and overseeing passage of legislation imposing additional safety measures governing injection and disposal wells. That law requires companies to provide ODNR with detailed well-drilling and construction information to minimize risks of seismic shifts.
Changing permit conditions to require all oil and gas drillers in certain areas to monitor seismic activity. Companies seeking horizontal drilling permits within 3 miles of known faults or in the vicinity of seismic events greater than a 2.0- magnitude must install state-of-the art and highly sensitive seismic monitors.
Requiring ODNR access to all seismic monitoring data, so state regulators won’t have to rely on the sometimes questionable self-reporting by producers.
Collectively, the new reforms go far toward establishing Ohio as a trailblazer among the states in its commitment to safe and responsible drilling. That distinction is evidenced by the lack of quakes induced by fracking or injection wells in the Buckeye State, compared with ongoing temblors in other drilling states such as Oklahoma.
Even the industry itself recognizes the value of Ohio’s proactive moves. As Shawn Bennett, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, aptly put it: “They [ODNR officials] have done a very sufficient job in protecting the human health, safety and environment of every Ohioan. They have put forward very stringent rules and regulations on our industry to minimize the possibility of a human-induced seismic event.”
The tougher standards placed on drillers and disposers of drilling wastes in the state also underscore the value of responsible levels of oversight to protect residents and resources. At a time when a new presidential administration committed to weakening regulatory controls prepares to take office, the lessons and lasting positive impact of the great earthquake of Dec. 31, 2011, should not be forgotten.