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Industry: We're On Solid Ground Despite Ohio Quakes

Despite the decision by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) to shut down a wastewater disposal well in Youngstown, industry backers are confident the decision will not have an impact on the emerging oil and gas industry in Ohio's portions of the Marcellus and Utica shales.

On Sunday the ODNR ordered Northstar Disposal Services LLC to halt operations at its wastewater disposal well in Youngstown (see Shale Daily, Jan. 4). The agency said it was concerned wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) injected into the well may have triggered seismic activity that began in March 2011 and culminated in a 4.0-magnitude temblor on Saturday.

"It's only a single well that was actively receiving wastewater for disposal," Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), told NGI's Shale Daily. "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's Shale Daily that the governor was weighing a preliminary decision over whether to continue the suspension order.

"[An announcement] may not be [made] today but we should have more to say about this soon," Nichols said Wednesday.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association (OOGA), told NGI's Shale Daily that 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 Wednesday, 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."

Opponents of fracking in the Buckeye State say the quake activity is a sign that additional regulatory changes are necessary and are vowing 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's Shale Daily. "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.

"We think ODNR and the operator rightfully halted operations of this injection well and others in the area until scientists can analyze the situation."

In addition to the active wastewater disposal well, the ODNR also ordered the shutdown of four inactive production wells owned by Northstar.

On Tuesday state Sen. Joe Schiavoni (D-Canfield) -- whose district includes the Mahoning Valley, the area rattled by the seismic activity -- 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 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."

Dougherty said the OEC would renew its call for the General Assembly to enact a moratorium on drilling until the ODNR can strengthen the regulations currently governing the oil and gas industry.

"If there's any silver lining from this, hopefully it will be the ODNR strengthening its rules and closing any loopholes," Dougherty said. "The entire life cycle of shale drilling needs to be properly overseen."

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 Shale Daily, July 29, 2011; March 4, 2011).

Ohio State University Professor Wendy Panero told NGI's Shale Daily that wastewater from a disposal well could definitely affect a geologic fault, but declined to speculate if renewed operations would cause them to continue.

"Injecting fluid into a region that has faults that are stressed can help to lubricate a fault," Panero said. "It's not exactly lubricating, but you can think about it loosely as lubricating. You would then have an earthquake. It would have occurred otherwise, but the occurrence would just happen sooner."

Stewart concurred. "The most likely scenario people are talking about is that there is some kind of small fault system underneath the basin rocks that is accepting this water," he said. "And because water is going by it lubricates and causes the fault to move to some extent, causing a temblor. It's not an authentic earthquake.

"I think finding that [fault] would be very difficult, but if the [ODNR] wanted to talk to us about how to do that, we would sit down and talk to them," Stewart added.

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