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Rock doc: Fracking waste judged to cause Ohio earthquakes

By
March 18, 2012 |

The solid earth is riddled with faults. Each fault is a plane of weakness in the rocks that make up the outer rind of the Earth. Some of those faults have been mapped by geologists, but others are unknown to even the most advanced science we have today. And now, courtesy of officials in Ohio, at least one state of the union is going to have new regulations that could hold energy companies to account for some “side effects” caused by previously unknown faults.

The tale hinges on fracking, the nickname given to injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into the Earth to break up shale formations so that the natural gas inside them flows into wells. Fracking is an increasingly important part of how we are drilling for domestic energy resources. It’s controversial, with environmentalists concerned about unintended impacts of the chemicals involved while others support the economic opportunities the process yields.

One of the features of fracking is that energy companies that use the technique often have significant quantities of wastewater they need to dispose of. In Ohio, wastewater was injected down deep wells near the city of Youngstown. In March of last year an energy company was given the go-ahead by the state to increase the pressure of wastewater injections. Over a few months from March to December of 2011, a dozen small earthquakes were recorded in the area. The Youngstown area isn’t known for seismic activity, so the quakes got people’s attention.

Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources set out to study the small quakes. As newspapers have reported, Ohio’s DNR has now issued a finding that wastewater injection related to fracking probably caused the quakes. It wasn’t the fracking itself they say caused the earthquakes, but the injection of wastewater into deep disposal wells in the Youngstown area.

State officials found that fluids from disposal wells intersected a previously unknown fault. That fault was near the state of stress that could make it move, and the fluid promoted movement, creating the earthquakes.

State officials have now issued tough new regulations about how energy companies can dispose of the briny wastewater fracking often produces. The rules prohibit wells in certain types of rock formations. They also require companies to report much more geologic data before they drill in Ohio.

A lot is at stake with fracking and attempts to regulate it. Many Americans say they support efforts to increase our energy independence, and fracking does that. At the same time, there is growing environmental concern about fracking, with the induction of earthquakes only the latest in a list of what alarms some citizens about the practice.

Reuters reports that Ohio has 200 deep wells within its borders, with 177 of them related to the oil and gas industry. Injecting fluids down wells isn’t a new feature of life in the Buckeye State. Since 1983 more than 200 million barrels of fluids from oilfields — some of it from out of state — has been disposed of within Ohio. At the national level, more than 2 billion gallons of waste is disposed of each day. Those facts suggests that a great deal of fluids can be injected in at least many wells without major problems.

But the matter has become a political hot-button in Ohio. National “Super PAC” groups have spent millions of dollars in ads in Ohio relating to fracking, according to Reuters.

Political discussion is how we citizens of a democracy can formulate policy via our elected leaders. But the acrimony in today’s politics sometimes gets in the way of level-headed discussion of our energy options. It’s a simple fact that if we don’t produce more oil and natural gas here at home, we are likely to use more from abroad. The question is how we weigh that against understandable environmental concerns.

There are no perfect solutions to our energy needs. Tradeoffs in policies are the only way forward to help our energy-hungry society meet its short and long term demands. This rock-head isn’t sure that money from Super Pacs — on either side of the fracking issue — helps us find our way to the best policies we can craft.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Follow her on the web at rockdoc.wsu.edu and on Twitter @RockDocWSU. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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