While tapping the Utica Shale that much of Delaware County sits atop of could create riches for residents, the process is also fraught with environmental risks.
Fracking, the process used to extract oil and natural gas from rock formations deep below the Earth’s surface, has been linked to water contamination, air pollution and earthquakes.
“It holds the potential for significant amount of energy and potential jobs,” Jack Shaner, public affairs director at the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), said of fracking. “It also holds the potential for significant threats to our air, land and water unless we control its development.”
To extract minerals using the process, oil companies inject pressurized fracking fluids into the shale formation, which eventually causes that gas and oil to rise to the well head. The fluid is mostly water. However, it also contains some hazardous chemicals.
The chemicals, however, are not the major threat to drinking water. Instead, it is methane gas that can escape during the drilling process that has allegedly contaminated water supplies where fracking is utilized. The earliest documented case dates back to 1987 when a West Virginia well was reportedly contaminated.
More recently, 13 Pennsylvania wells in 2009 were found to be contaminated with methane in an area where fracking was taking place. One of the wells exploded. The energy company involved has denied any responsibility.
A 2011 Duke University study found that groundwater within six tenths of a mile to fracking wells in New York and Pennsylvania had, on average, 17 times the level of methane compared to groundwater sources farther from fracking sites.
“As we’ve seen just from traditional vertical drilling, if not completed properly this is a real risk to people’s well water,” Shaner said. “As long as there has been oil and gas drilling there has been the risk of people having their well water contaminated.”
Since permitting requirements were established in 1982, the Delaware General Health District has issued more than 2,000 permits for water wells. It is unclear how many existed prior to 1982 that are still in use.
The methane produced from fracking has the potential to migrate into the air, too, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that some scientists believe lead to climate change.
The process also requires the use of millions of gallons of water to extract the natural resources. While Ohio is thought of as a water-rich state, it is a precious resource in many other places, including in some western U.S. states. Once the water is used for fracking, it cannot be treated and is no longer safe for human consumption.
“Once water is used in the drilling process, it is contaminated. It leaves the water cycle,” Shaner said. “This water gets permanently taken out of the cycle and is injected deep underground, never to be used again.”
The used water is placed in underground disposal wells. Those wells have been linked to numerous 2011 earthquakes in the Youngstown area, including one that registered 4.0 on the Richter scale on New Year’s Eve.
Seismic activity can be prevented with a more comprehensive study of the land around the area being used as a disposal well, according to Bart Martin, a professor of geology and geography at Ohio Wesleyan University.
“If you don’t understand the geology at the base of the well, then the fluids have the potential of getting into the faults and acting like a lubricant,” Martin said. “That can be prevented if you get a good understanding of the geology at the base of the injection well.”
Martin does not believe that there is much to worry about in terms of air and water pollution or seismic activity, pointing to the fact that the process has been used for decades.
“If the well drilling and engineering and the hydraulic fracturing is done correctly there should not be a problem,” he said.
The OEC at one time was calling for a state-wide moratorium on fracking. Now it is just hoping that the industry will be well-regulated so as to prevent water contamination and earthquakes.
“That black gold rush is on,” Shaner said. “The deep shale drilling is occurring so we better hurry up and get some more safeguards in place now.”