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Published: Saturday, 4/12/2014 - Updated: 6 months ago

Ohio finds 'probable connection' between earthquakes in Mahoning County and hydraulic fracturing

BOB DOWNING
THE AKRON BEACON JOURNAL

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources on Friday announced that recent earthquakes in Mahoning County were likely caused by hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

The state ordered an indefinite moratorium on fracking natural gas wells within three miles of the epicenter of earthquakes on March 10 and 11 in Poland Township southeast of Youngstown. There were five quakes of 2.0 or greater.

The report marks the first probable connection between earthquakes and hydraulic fracturing or fracking in Ohio.

It is reportedly the first likely connection between earthquakes and that process in the Appalachian Basin that includes Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

It also creates a new problem for drillers and the drilling industry.

The order halts fracking of wells on two pads by Texas-based Hilcorp Energy Co. that was fracturing the wells on the Carbon Limestone Landfill on the Ohio-Pennsylvania border.

Hilcorp said it is reviewing the ODNR action.

“While we take the time necessary for understanding how these conditions impact Ohio operations, we remain fully committed to public safety and acting in a manner consistent with being a good corporate citizen in the communities where we operate,” the company said in a statement.

In a related move, Ohio said it is changing its permit conditions for drilling in Ohio near faults or earthquake sites.

Seismic monitors needed

New permits for drilling within three miles of a known underground geologic fault or area of seismic activity greater than 2.0 magnitude will require companies to install seismic monitors. The order would affect any quakes since 1999 that were recorded at magnitude 2.0 or greater.

If those monitors detect a quake of 1.0 magnitude or greater, drilling activities would be halted while the cause is investigated. If that investigation reveals a probable connection to hydraulic fracturing, all well completion operations will be suspended. That requirement went into effect on Friday.

“While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety and the environment,” said ODNR Director James Zehringer.

The state action drew a cautious and defensive response from the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.

“We believe the seismic activity experienced in Poland Township was a rare and isolated event that should not cast doubt about the safety of hydraulic fracturing, a process that has been conducted on more than 1 million oil and gas wells in the U.S. including 80,000 in Ohio, since the 1950s,” said Thomas Stewart, executive vice president of the statewide group.

“Though we understand the public’s concern, we encourage an abundance of caution and perspective when evaluating this incident,” he said. “Ohio has benefited greatly from a robust oil and gas industry and this should not curtail development.

“… We will review the recommendations provided by the ODNR but will only support measures based on sound, scientific principles and practicality.”

Environmental groups were pleased by Ohio’s action.

Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund said: “The steps announced to protect communities from seismic events are reasonable precautions. Although there is much uncertainty regarding what causes earthquakes and how dangerous small and medium quakes may be — and therefore this is a policy that may well evolve in the future — the state’s decisive action is based on the best information available. This approach should serve the citizens well.”

Ohio has decided there is “a probable connection” between the Hilcorp fracking and the March quakes, said spokesman Mark Bruce.

State geologists suspect that the water and sand injected into a well in Poland Township during the fracking process may have increased pressure on an unknown microfault in the area, the agency said.

In fracking, drillers inject water, sand and chemicals at high pressure to fracture or crack the underground rock.

Quakes in four states

There have been reports of earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas linked to injection wells where drilling wastes are pumped underground.

The company has two pads in Poland Township: one with six wells, five of which have been partially fracked, and a sixth that has not been fracked.

The second pad has one well that has been drilled and is producing. Other wells on that pad are permitted but not yet drilled or fracked.

Those wells that have been fracked may be put into production by Hilcorp, as long as seismic equipment is installed, Bruce said. Those wells not yet fracked cannot be completed, he said.

Not completing those wells should reduce underground pressure and decrease the likelihood of additional quakes, ODNR said.

To date, Ohio has approved 1,202 Utica shale wells, of which 810 have been drilled as of April 5. Of that total, 389 wells are in production. Drilling those wells required 16,000 hydraulic fracturing or fracking stages, ODNR said.

Since 1999, Ohio has had 109 seismic events that were a 2.0 magnitude or larger.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.

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©2014 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at www.ohio.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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