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Published: Sunday, 9/8/2013 - Updated: 11 months ago

Fracking strikes fear far from gas-rich shale

B.G. debates how to ban it, despite region being ill-suited for method

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

BOWLING GREEN — The global debate over the risks of pulverizing shale bedrock to unlock trapped oil and natural gas raises the following question: Is the public’s fear of fracking overshadowing legitimate threats posed by the drilling technique?

Consider Bowling Green as northwest Ohio’s biggest case study.

On Sept. 16, council is expected to take a final vote on a fracking ban within the city limits, even though the city — far from areas that geologists deem most likely to be fracked — has drawn little or no interest from the oil and gas industry.

The ban was suggested by Mayor Dick Edwards in response to a proposed amendment to the city’s charter banning fracking in the city that a group of petitioners succeeded in getting placed on the Nov. 5 ballot.

Mr. Edwards said he isn’t sure a fracking ban is necessary. But, at the advice of the city law department, he offered it as an alternative to the proposed charter amendment, which is on the ballot as a so-called “Community Bill of Rights.”

The charter amendment asserts a number of rights for Bowling Green residents that Mr. Edwards considers nebulous and far-reaching, including the right to pure water, clean air, peace, respect for nature, renewable energy, and self-governance.

The mayor agrees they are noble concepts. But he said they will be difficult to define, much less enforce.

“It just doesn’t hold together; it’s too vague,” Mr. Edwards said. “I have suggested that they [city councilmen] deal with the issue straight up, that they ban fracking in the city limits.”

The initiative

The ballot initiative was undertaken by a nonprofit group called Protect BG Ohio, which spokesman Leslie Harper said is an offshoot of a larger group called the FreshWater Accountability Project. She runs both from her house in Grand Rapids, Ohio.

Ms. Harper, a licensed customs broker at Trans-World Shipping Service Inc., said the proposed Community Bill of Rights is “simply an inner knowing and an inner drive to do what we know is right to protect our community.”

Council’s passage of the fracking ban ordinance would not prevent voters from passing Protect BG Ohio’s proposed Community Bill of Rights.

But the belief among city officials is that a majority of voters would get enough peace of mind from a fracking ban, thereby seeing no need to pass a ballot initiative that, in their mind, would needlessly tinker with the city’s charter.

“There’s a lot of resistance around here to a willy-nilly change to the charter,” Mr. Edwards said.

Changes to the charter, passed in 1972, have thus far been limited to wording clarifications that emerged from formal reviews in 1991 and 2001, the mayor said.

Councilman Bob McOmber, who chairs Bowling Green’s finance committee, said he believes the proposed Community Bill of Rights is “vague and broad.”

“I don’t think anyone could look at it and know what it covers and doesn’t,” he said. “It’s a fine line to walk. None of us want fracking to occur in Bowling Green. But we have some reservations about the charter amendment.”

He said he supported the mayor’s proposal for an anti-fracking ordinance because he saw it as an opportunity to also ban deep-well injections of fracking waste fluids in the city.

That also is not happening in Bowling Green. But Ohio is on the cusp of an anticipated fracking boom and is already taking most of Pennsylvania’s fracking waste fluids. They’re injected into wells in eastern Ohio.

Past drilling

Bowling Green brings a mix of dynamics to the fracking debate that some people find both fascinating and frustrating.

It is a college town with a reputation for being both pro-environment, demonstrated by its early and unwavering support of wind and solar energy, as well as having a reputation for being pro-business. Progressive politics on campus are balanced by those of staunch Republicans in rural parts of Wood County.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, the drilling industry’s most active lobbyist group in Columbus, notes that Bowling Green was once part of America’s largest oil boom.

That was during the 1800s. The industry’s attention shifted to Texas after rudimentary techniques and excessive wells drilled in Wood, Hancock, and other northwest Ohio counties depleted underground pressure and made it too expensive to keep drilling.

But those were traditional vertical wells.

Although Mr. Stewart said the hydraulic fracturing of shale bedrock, or “fracking,” came to Ohio in 1952, the game-changer worldwide was recent development of a technology that extended drill heads horizontally.

That allowed fracking in multiple directions, laterally, from a single well — which has made drilling more efficient and given access to previously trapped oil and natural gas.

Source of concern

The horizontal fracking technique has created a buzz globally.

In 2012, the International Energy Agency — one of the world’s largest promoters of energy production — issued a report called the “Golden Rules for a Golden Age of Gas,” in which it implored energy companies across North America, Europe, China, and other parts of the world to avoid shortcuts.

The only way the industry can win the public’s confidence on fracking, according to the report, is to do it right.

Fracking’s critics cite concerns about the huge volumes of water used to push out trapped oil and natural gas, the potential for contaminating aquifers, and concerns about what happens with waste fluids. Research shows disposal of fracking waste fluids could be responsible for some small earthquakes, including ones near Youngstown.

More than 80,000 wells in the state have pulverized rock, Mr. Stewart said. But Ohio Department of Natural Resources records show that fewer than 900 were horizontally fracked — 870 in the Utica shale and 28 in the Marcellus shale of eastern Ohio.

A fracking future?

State lawmakers anticipate a huge upswing for 25 to 30 years, starting in 2014.

All horizontal fracking to date has occurred east of I-77, near the Pennsylvania and West Virginia state lines, said Mark Bruce, ODNR spokesman.

Northwest Ohio does not have a shale formation conducive to horizontal fracking.

“I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that is not happening in your readership area,” Mr. Bruce said.

The optimal depth for horizontal fracking is 8,000 feet, according to an ODNR fact sheet.

In Bowling Green?

Bob Vincent, retired Bowling Green State University geology professor, said that even if drilling companies work within depths of 5,000 to 6,000 feet, that still rules out the city of Bowling Green, which he said sits on only about 1,200 feet of clay and rock above an aquifer.

Uncapped wells left behind from the early days also is a deterrent, he said.

Oil companies “would lose product through open holes that never were plugged,” he added.

“Cracking would occur all of the way to the surface,” Mr. Vincent said.

Bowling Green simply doesn’t have the economics and geology to support fracking, he said. “I don’t know of any company that would be that foolish to do it [in Bowling Green].”

‘Human rights’

Ms. Harper said she graduated from Bowling Green State University in 1997 with a business degree.

“The charter amendment,” she said, “is putting our human rights, our inalienable rights ahead of corporations.”

She said she and others behind the ballot initiative were motivated in large part by area farmers they’ve heard who have been approached about their mineral rights.

ODNR issued a drilling permit on June 5 to Savoy Energy of Traverse City, Mich., to drill on western Lucas County land near Berkey. The company had talked about trying to horizontally frack it but decided to install only a conventional vertical well. It is hoping to extract oil and natural gas, Mr. Bruce said.

Savoy Energy, which declined to be interviewed, is required to notify ODNR if it ever intends to frack that site, he said.

The only known horizontal well drilled in northwest Ohio is in Sandusky County. But it was not hydraulically fractured, Mr. Bruce said.

Fear factor

The momentum behind Bowling Green’s charter amendment is more a reaction to fear than legitimate threats, according to several people who believe the drive is part of a nationwide anti-fracking movement.

“It’s a political move,” Mr. Stewart said. “This is a political movement to leverage control by picking soft targets around the state and going for it.”

He said he believes its hope is to rack up a number of victories on the community level to send a message to state legislators.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Mr. Edwards said. “Some environmentalists are getting caught up in the emotionalism.”

Said Mr. McOmber: “They’re looking for places they can win. They came to us; we didn’t go to them. I think it has something to do with [Bowling Green] being a college town and having a liberal atmosphere.”

The fracking ban is being offered because officials said they want to give residents peace of mind.

Yet even the ordinance coming up for a vote in City Council on Sept. 16 could be nothing more than symbolic if there ever were a serious proposal to frack within city limits.

“We believe we have the sole and exclusive authority to issue permits,” Mr. Bruce said of the ODNR.

He said it is the state’s position that its actions would supersede any local ordinances that a municipal council passes.

And, Mr. Bruce said, ODNR is required to issue drilling permits to companies that meet the conditions set forth in them.

That, according to Ms. Harper, is another reason petitioners gathered signatures for the Community Bill of Rights.

She said she believes the charter amendment would give Bowling Green more legal muscle to fend off would-be frackers, whereas city officials believe an anti-fracking ordinance would.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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