Earth­quake link casts cloud over frack­ing

Ohio of­fi­cials say process is likely re­spon­si­ble for a se­ries of tremors

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - BY BEN WOLF­GANG

In an­other blow to the nat­u­ral gas ex­trac­tion tech­nique known as frack­ing, of­fi­cials in Ohio now say wastew­a­ter pro­duced by the pop­u­lar process is likely re­spon­si­ble for a rash of re­cent earth­quakes.

The con­clu­sions will al­most surely fuel a de­bate over the trade-offs be­tween eco­nomic re­wards and en­vi­ron­men­tal risks that has raged in states across the Mid­west and mid-at­lantic re­gion.

The find­ings, re­leased late last week by the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, show that a dis­posal well ap­pears to be the cul­prit in the dozen tremors since March 2011, in­clud­ing the 4.0 quake that shook Youngstown on New Year’s Eve. State of­fi­cials stressed that while “in­duced earth­quakes” are ex­tremely rare, they can be trig­gered un­der spe­cific cir­cum­stances — all of which ap­pear to have been met by the well in ques­tion.

Most im­por­tant, the well was con­structed on a tract where “no fault line had been pre­vi­ously mapped,” but fur­ther re­search has shown that such a line ex­ists. The in­jec­tion well was also drilled “deep enough and near enough” to the fault and pumped “a suf­fi­cient quan­tity of flu­ids at high enough pres­sure” to cause a dis­tur­bance, the re­port con­cluded.

Other “co­in­ci­den­tal cir­cum­stances” also point to the dis­posal well, in­clud­ing the fact that it went into op­er­a­tion just three months be­fore the first tem­blor and that all of the seis­mic events were “clus­tered” around that area, of­fi­cials said.

In the days fol­low­ing the study’s re­lease, both sides of the frack­ing de­bate — en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists who be­lieve it is in­her­ently dan­ger­ous and pro­po­nents who cite the eco­nomic ben­e­fits it has al­ready gen­er­ated across the na­tion — have claimed vic­tory.

“The re­port . . . states that all the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that prop­erly lo­cated in­jec­tion wells will not cause earth­quakes,” said Terry Flem­ing, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Ohio Petroleum Coun­cil. “Man- made earth­quakes have been known for some time, from dam-build­ing to geo­ther­mal projects. Ge­ol­o­gists in­volved in this iso­lated re­port con­cluded that it’s very dif­fi­cult for all con­di­tions to be met to in­duce seis­mic events.”

In­dus­try in­sid­ers point out that frack­ing it­self — the use of water, sand and chem­i­cal cock­tails to crack un­der­ground rock and re­lease trapped re­serves of nat­u­ral gas — was not re­spon­si­ble for the quakes, as some have claimed. They also note that many com­pa­nies re­cy­cle and re­use the mil­lions of gal­lons of water needed to frack a well, rather than us­ing the cheaper method of pump­ing the used flu­ids back into the ground.

But crit­ics con­tend the Ohio find­ings are proof that gas com­pa­nies can’t be re­lied upon to act re­spon­si­bly, and that stronger reg­u­la­tions at both the state and fed­eral lev­els are needed.

“Ohio kept on drilling these wells at a faster and faster pace. If you con­tin­u­ally play with fire, you will even­tu­ally get burnt,” the Ohio En­vi­ron­men­tal Coun­cil said in a state­ment. “There is still no in­di­ca­tion that the state of Ohio is will­ing to take a step back and think about the big picture of lay­ing down proac­tive, pro­tec­tive reg­u­la­tions that will pre­vent bad things from hap­pen­ing in the first place.”

Along with its find­ings, the Ohio Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources also re­leased broad new reg­u­la­tions to en­sure that frack­ing waste dis­posal is done safely.

The state will now re­quire a re­view of all ge­o­logic data “for known faulted ar­eas within the state” and will pro­hibit com­pa­nies from drilling in­jec­tion wells in those ar­eas. Com­pa­nies must also in­stall “con­tin­u­ous pres­sure mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems,” au­to­matic shut-offs when pres­sure gets dan­ger­ously high, and elec­tronic data-record­ing sys­tems to track all flu­ids de­posited in the ground.

The frack­ing-re­lated quakes are the lat­est events to cast doubt on the safety of the prac­tice. Last year, the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency re­leased a draft re­port blam­ing the process for water con­tam­i­na­tion in Pavil­lion, Wyo. In­dus­try lead­ers have strongly dis­puted the re­sults of that study, and the agency is ex­pected to com­mis­sion an in­de­pen­dent, third-party re­view of its find­ings in the near fu­ture.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Con­victed ter­ror­ism plot­ter Ahmed Res­sam is fac­ing a longer sen­tence af­ter Mon­day’s ap­peals court rul­ing.

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