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As links between earthquakes and fracking grow, state government must provide adequate regulation

It's good that Gov. John Kasich’s administration is strengthening its oversight of oil and natural-gas drilling that uses the common technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It would have been better if the state had acted before, not after, geologists for the first time linked fracking to earthquakes in Ohio— five minor tremors in Mahoning County last month. But official acknowledgement of the need for tougher regulation of fracking is important in any event.

Ohio Department of Natural Resources officials, investigating the series of small earthquakes in the Youngstown area, say fracking activity in the geological formation called the Utica shale likely increased pressure on an underground fault. Fracking involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, with sand and toxic chemicals, to break up rocks in deep shale and promote the flow of oil and gas locked within.

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ODNR officials properly have suspended fracking operations indefinitely in the vicinity of the quakes. They are amending the criteria for granting state permits for new wells drilled near fault lines or sites of previous earthquakes.

Drillers in such areas now must install sensitive new monitors and stop fracking if even low-level seismic activity is detected. State regulators will have access to the monitoring data, so they won’t have to rely on self-reporting by producers.

The state also needs to revise as needed its processes for granting permits for injection wells that hold wastewater generated by fracking. Regulators and drillers have a common interest in ensuring the safety of disposal practices, which also have been tied to earthquake activity in the Youngstown area, as well as the threat of pollution of drinking water sources.

Fracking activity is likely to grow in Ohio, despite calls by critics to ban it. A poll of Ohio voters this month — commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, to be sure — suggests that a large majority of the state’s residents say they support increased domestic production of oil and gas.

Enhanced regulation will cost more money. Governor Kasich has called for a modest — indeed inadequate — increase in Ohio’s severance tax. But the General Assembly, which takes its instructions from the state’s oil and gas lobby, still refuses to consider his proposal.

The state also can make greater progress on requiring disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, evaluating the ever-growing use of horizontal drilling, and addressing the possible effects of fracking on air pollution.

A report this month by the advocacy group Policy Matters Ohio identifies other fracking-related issues that require the state’s attention: jobs that go to out-of-state rather than Ohio workers, increased truck traffic that is damaging roads and contributing to auto accidents, and rising rents that are pricing some residents out of local housing markets. Additionally, even as oil and gas drilling increases, the state still needs to diversify its energy supplies.

Fracking contributes to economic growth and job creation in Ohio, but such benefits cannot be realized at the expense of the state’s environment, public health and safety, and infrastructure. When the state achieves an appropriate balance, the oil and gas in the Utica and Marcellus shales will still be there.

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