INJECTION wells have safely disposed of wastewater from oil and natural-gas exploration in the United States since the 1930s. Yet despite their record of reliability and approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the preferred disposal method, the wells are under attack.
Several Ohio cities have banned injection wells or increased local control over permits for, and construction and regulation of, the wells. Local officials may believe they’re doing right by their constituents, but these misguided measures could endanger public safety.
Industry and regulatory experts, and many within the environmental community, call injection wells the safest and most environmentally sound method of disposing of wastewater generated during oil and gas operations. That includes flow-back from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Ohio has 177 operating injection wells. It also has some of the toughest rules and laws in the nation to oversee deep underground disposal.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management regulates the state’s injection wells. That designation requires the division to meet or exceed federal regulations established by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
A 2004 state law grants the division exclusive regulatory authority over injection wells, and limits the oversight role of local governments. The law recognizes that a safe and effective program of underground injection requires expertise and resources that most municipal governments cannot afford or provide.
The state division includes geologists, hydrologists, seismologists, and other professionals who have the necessary knowledge to monitor injection wells. It also has the budget, which state lawmakers increased two years ago with industry support, to run a robust regulatory program. The division is hiring the additional staff it needs to meet the demands of Ohio’s expanding oil and gas industry.
The division reviews specifications for well construction, engineering and geologic data, and permits. It closely monitors the drilling and construction of new injection wells, to ensure that operators comply with terms of their permits.
Once a well starts to operate, the division conducts regular, often unannounced, inspections. It performs tests of mechanical integrity on each injection well every three months; that exceeds the federal testing standard of every five years.
Two recent actions have further strengthened the regulation of injection wells in Ohio. A new state law governs transportation, reporting, and disposal of wastewater from oil and gas operations.
In addition, new rules written by the state division restrict drilling of new injection wells into deep rock formations. They require well operators to gather extensive geological data before they drill. And they mandate the installation of high-tech monitoring devices.
These new safeguards respond to the low-level earthquakes, most of them of barely perceptible magnitude, in the Youngstown area last year. An ODNR investigation determined that a geologic anomaly — an unmapped fault line near an injection well — caused the small earthquakes.
The seismic activity in Youngstown was rare and isolated. But it shows why it’s imperative to have trained and experienced regulators at the helm of a program to control underground injection.
Local governments may have the best intentions, but they lack the know-how and resources for proper oversight. Local policies to regulate injection wells don’t enhance public safety — they undermine it.
The state’s oil and gas industry, environmental officials, and lawmakers have worked together to ensure that Ohio has one of the best regulatory structures for oil and gas exploration in the United States. Ohioans should take pride and comfort in knowing that the state is ready to manage, safely and effectively, all aspects of our state’s expanding oil and gas industry.
Thomas E. Stewart is executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.