Ohio quakes raise fracking questions

Ohio, a city of just under 70,000 people, experienced 11 earthquakes last year. This has surprised many, as prior to 2010, the city had no history of quakes in the past 100 years. Many link the incidence of quake to the gas drilling in the area called fracking.

One doesn’t usually expect a crowd when the Youngstown, Ohio City Council holds a subcommittee meeting. But then Youngstown doesn’t usually have earthquakes. In fact, prior to 2010 you could go back more than 100 years and not find record of a single one.

In 2011, however, this city of just under 70,000 experienced 11 earthquakes. The most recent and most serious was a 4.0 that struck on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve.

So when the Chair of the Utilities Subcommittee called a public hearing on the earthquakes – and the possibility that they were linked to the controversial gas drilling process known as fracking – the crowd was so large they had to hold the meeting in the local convention centre.

Dorothy and Albert Bobchuck were among the hundreds of local residents who came to listen to a panel of speakers. The retired couple had been getting ready for church when the quake rattled their home and their peace of mind.

“We’ve been in tornados and hurricanes, but this,” she said with a shudder. The Bobchuck’s suspected the earthquakes were linked to fracking – or hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves injecting water and chemicals into shale rock formations to release the gas. After all, the state had gone so far as shutting down five local injection wells that dispose of fracking wastewater.

Who would be liable?

What the Bobchuck’s, and many others in the crowd, wanted to know is who would be liable for damages if and when another earthquake struck? None of the earthquakes have caused injuries or damages – so far.

City Councilor Mike Ray had assembled a panel of experts including representatives from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources [ODNR], which regulates fracking and the disposal of fracking fluids.

An ODNR official zoomed through several pages of a power point presentation but never directly blamed the well or its owner, D and L Energy Group – despite the fact the seismologists ODNR had asked to study the quakes had already gone on record saying they were directly linked to one well in particular.

“I think this case has reached point of being proven beyond a reasonable doubt,” John Armbruster told me when I visited him at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

State Representative Bob Hogan received enthusiastic hoots and hollers halfway through the presentation when he complained that the speakers were talking a lot but not answering any questions.

“This is a dog and pony show,” another man stood up and shouted.

D and L didn’t take part in the forum.

One thing was clear from the state’s presentation, even though it was hard to see on the scoreboard high above the arena: the amount of fracking wastewater coming into Ohio is skyrocketing. In 2010 it was 8.5 million barrels, 34 per cent of it from out of state.

In 2011 it was 11 million, 54 per cent from out of state. The state receives millions of dollars in regulatory fees for each of the 177 injection wells operating there.

Residents sceptical

There’s no doubt, the fracking boom has helped the economy of this struggling old steel town. But as Councilor Ray told me, local residents are sceptical of industry types. Jobs from the steel industry have long since gone, but the community is still dealing with those environmental issues.

Carlton Ingram, wearing a jacket with the logo of the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 66, also attended the meeting looking for answers. For the first time in years, he said all 7,000 of his members can find work.

Many are helping with the 650 million dollar expansion of the local V and M pipe mill, which is gearing up to serve the shale gas industry.

But Ingram had felt the 4.0 shake his home, and didn’t think the jobs justified not examining the risk. He wanted to know why this one well had issues, when others appeared to be operating without problem.

“A lot of questions need to be answered,” he said before leaving the hearing. “You have to wonder if they don’t know or if they just aren’t telling you.”

D and L has commissioned its own geological study of the area around the well, and the state is waiting to see those results before deciding its next step. It may be a while. A spokesperson for D and L says there is no timetable for the study.