A security guard directs trucks servicing the oil and gas
drilling operations in Waterville, Pennsylvania. The local
area sits above the Marcellus Shale, which stretches across
West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State. Photo
Ohio geologists have found a probable connection between
fracking and a sudden burst of mild earthquakes last month in a
region that had never experienced a temblor until recently,
according to a state report.
The quake report, which coincided with the state's
announcement of some of the nation's strictest limits on
fracking near faults, marked the strongest link to date
between nerve-rattling shakes and hydraulic fracturing - the
process of firing water, sand and chemicals deep into the
earth to eject oil and natural gas out of ancient rock.
Last month, Ohio indefinitely shut down Hilcorp Energy's
fracking operation near the Pennsylvania border after five
earthquakes, including one magnitude-3 temblor that awoke
many Ohioans from their sleep.
Federal scientists have previously linked earthquakes in part
to the use of injection wells, where post-fracking waste
water is forced back deep into the earth for storage. None of
the seven wells near the Ohio temblors were used for waste
disposal, leaving Ohio scientists to go a step further to
find a significant relationship between the initial blast of
fluid and the earthquakes shortly after.
They "believe the sand and water injected into the well
during the hydraulic fracturing process may have increased
pressure on an unknown microfault in the area," the Ohio
Department of Natural Resources said in a statement about the
Poland, Ohio, operation.
The new rules require companies to install "sensitive seismic
monitors" before beginning to drill sideways into underground
rock "within 3 miles of a known fault or area of seismic
activity greater than a 2.0 magnitude." Humans can generally
feel earthquakes in excess of magnitude 3.
Drilling would be suspended pending investigation whenever
the monitors detect anything above magnitude 1.
"While we can never be 100 percent sure that drilling
activities are connected to a seismic event, caution dictates
that we take these new steps to protect human health, safety
and the environment," said department Director James
Zehringer. Data gathered by the monitors would be used to
improve fault maps, he said.
Hilcorp Energy said it was reviewing the new permitting rules
and that it remained "fully committed to public safety and
acting in a manner consistent with being a good corporate
Officials from Ohio and several other states that have seen a
dramatic rise in seismic activity met recently to discuss how
to handle the ongoing expansion of fracking to new beds of
rock, where faults might not be well mapped.
Gerry Baker, an official with the Interstate Oil and Gas
Compact Commission, called Ohio's new rules a "sensible
response to a serious issue that regulators across the
country are closely examining." Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas and
Kansas have been among those seeing the largest surges in
Critics of fracking have long warned of a suspected
connection between earthquakes and the expanded drilling for
oil and gas in shale deposits. They've also raised concerns
about the chemicals used contaminating groundwater.
Ray Beiersdorfer, a Youngstown State University geology
professor whose wife co-founded Frackfree America, said the
new regulations mirror what he has been seeking. He's now
asked Ohio officials to make public the data they used to
find the connection as well as set the new restrictions.
"The whole problem is no one knows about these faults until
the earthquakes happen because the faults haven't been
researched," he said.
The Environmental Defense Fund also lauded what they called
Ohio's "reasonable precautions."
"Although there is much uncertainty regarding what causes
earthquakes and how dangerous small and medium quakes may be
- and therefore this is a policy that may well evolve in the
future - the state's decisive action is based on the best
information available," the organization's senior policy
advisor, Scott Anderson, said in a statement.
Oil and gas companies have tended to stay away from the
well-known fault lines in Ohio, according to the industry
publication Natural Gas Intelligence. But industry leaders
have maintained that there's scant evidence that fracking
causes earthquakes, labeling the temblors isolated incidents.
At Hilcorp's site directly above last month's earthquakes,
the state has banned further fracking but has allowed wells
already fracked to resume operating.
"This is also expected to have the beneficial effect of
reducing underground pressure and decreasing the likelihood
of another seismic event," the state said.