Despite allegations that a wastewater disposal well in Youngstown may be responsible for about a dozen minor earthquakes in northeast Ohio over the past year, he oil and gas industry supporters told NGI last week that remain confident that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' (ODNR) decision to temporarily shut down a well will not have an impact on the emerging oil and gas industry in the state's portions of the Marcellus and Utica shales.

On Jan. 1 the ODNR ordered Northstar Disposal Services LLC to halt operations at the injection well over concerns that it may have triggered seismic activity that began last March and culminated in a 4.0-magnitude temblor on Dec. 31, 2011. Thousands of gallons of brine from hydraulic fracturing have been injected into the well every day since it opened in 2010.

"It's only a single well that was actively receiving wastewater for disposal," said Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition. "Therefore, the temporary closing of this single injection well will have little to virtually no material impact on our industry's operations."

Rob Nichols, spokesman for Gov. John Kasich, told NGI that the governor was weighing a preliminary decision over whether to continue the suspension order.

"It's possible we'll have more to say" in the coming days, Nichols said.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said the quakes were a "very localized anomaly...Having said that, I don't think anybody is willing to minimize the concern that citizens should have," Stewart said, adding that in the wake of the seismic activity that "if there are ways to go into the regulatory code and improve it, I think that's worth talking about and looking at. I think we as an industry have a duty to talk to [the ODNR] about how to get that done."

Stewart said there are 180 Class II underground injection wells up and down eastern Ohio into which seven million barrels of waste are injected each year. This has been taking place since 1985, and this is the first time that concerns about earthquakes have been raised, he said.

Opponents of fracking in the Buckeye State say the quake activity is a sign that additional regulatory changes are necessary. They have vowed to put pressure on Kasich and the General Assembly.

"Is it a game changer? We hope it changes something," Trent Dougherty, an attorney for the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), told NGI. "These earthquakes are shining a light on the uncertainties surrounding deep shale drilling and how prepared Ohio is in terms of its oversight and its regulation. Proper seismic testing beforehand could maybe have mitigated this incident."

In addition to the active wastewater disposal well, the ODNR also ordered Northstar to shut down four inactive injection wells. According to the OOGA, the four wells were in the various stages of obtaining a permit to accept wastewater.

State Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D-Canfield) -- whose district includes the Mahoning Valley, the area rattled by the seismic activity -- has called for the Senate to hold a public hearing in the region as soon as possible.

"I spoke with many residents over the holiday weekend who are very concerned for the safety of their family, homes, and property," Schiavoni said. "These are legitimate concerns that must be addressed in a timely manner."

One of those "concerned" people is Youngstown Mayor Charles Sammarone. Bloomberg reported last Wednesday that he had purchased earthquake insurance as a precautionary measure.

"You lose your whole house, that's your life savings, and if you have no money or no insurance to replace it, then what do you do?" Sammarone said. "Information is needed to make the homeowner and the residents feel safe."

Last year regulators in Arkansas established a moratorium on wastewater disposal wells in an area of the Fayetteville Shale after similar quake activity was reported there (see NGI, Aug. 1, 2011; March 21, 2011).

Ohio State University Professor Wendy Panero told NGI that wastewater from a disposal well could definitely affect a geologic fault, but declined to speculate if renewed operations would cause them to continue. John Armbruster, a seismologist associated with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, NY, believes it may take as much as a year for the quake activity to subside.

The quake activity in the Youngstown area began on March 17 and lasted through Christmas Eve (2.7 magnitude) and New Year's Eve. According to the information from four seismometers operated by Columbia University, the quakes on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve were 330 feet apart and of a similar depth (12,000 feet), the DNR said. DNR noted said that Northstar was working to lower the pressure of the Youngstown disposal well, and was paying the costs to bring in 12 holding tanks for the wastewater.

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