Ohio cracks down on fracking over earthquake worries

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Ohio is set to slap the oil and gas industry with more regulations, due to an alleged link between hydraulic fracturing near fault lines and increased earthquakes.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) said on Friday it would require drilling companies to install seismic monitors if they want to frack within three miles of a known fault line, or where an earthquake has already occurred. If the monitors detect a seismic event above a 1.0 magnitude, drilling operations must be stopped.

But the drilling pause doesn’t stop there. If the state determines there is a “probable connection” between fracking and the quake, oil and gas companies will not be able to complete their well site.

“The seismic testing will be done in real-time,” said ODNR spokesman Mark Bruce. “If we see anything above one, the (policy) will require them to stop. We can then look at the data. If the seismic monitors show that it is down at the bedrock (below the fracturing), then it has nothing to do with the well and they can continue.”

Increasingly, regulators are looking for links between seismic events and fracking operations. Fracking involves injecting large volumes of water, sand and chemicals about a mile underground to break up shale formations and release oil and natural gas. Environmentalists argue that fracking can contaminate groundwater and harm air quality.

Across the country, environmentalists have been trying to link fracking with earthquakes. Last month, Ohio’s Poland Township was hit by a 3.0 earthquake that originated directly under fracked wells. It was followed by four smaller quakes that prompted the state to halt oil and gas operations in the area.

The Poland Township quake, however, was relatively small. The U.S. Geological Survey even says that a 3.0 magnitude earthquake is equivalent to a truck driving by ones’ house — not a lot of people would be able to feel the quake’s vibrations.

Further, seismic events linked to fracking sites are extremely rare. The Poland Township incident is the first to occur out of the 836 wells in the Utica and Marcellus shales in the state of Ohio. A report from Durham University found that “after hundreds of thousands of fracturing operations, only three examples of felt seismicity have been documented.”

“The likelihood of inducing felt seismicity by hydraulic fracturing is thus extremely small but cannot be ruled out,” the Durham report found.

Another study from the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas at Austin looking at fracking operations in the Eagle Ford Shale region found that “[a]lthough there is a considerable amount of hydraulic fracturing activity in the Eagle Ford, we don’t see a strong signal associated with that and earthquakes.”

While scientists continue to debate the links between fracking and earthquakes, environmentalists have pushed forward with reports stating that fracking is causing seismic events throughout the country.

Most recently, the Center for Biological Diversity put out a study claiming that the California oil and gas industry has increased the risk of earthquakes in the state by fracking close to fault lines. Fracking operations generally pressurize a small amount of rock for about two hours, which causes extremely small microseismic events — but nothing close to earthquakes.

A peer-reviewed 2012 study on fracking in the Inglewood Oil Field in Los Angeles County found that “the high-volume hydraulic fracturing and high-rate gravel packs had no detectable effects on vibration, and did not induce seismicity (earthquakes).”

“The energy released by one of these tiny microseismic events is equivalent to the energy of a gallon of milk hitting the floor after falling off a kitchen counter,” said Stanford university Geophysicist Mark Zoback, who was an Obama administration Energy Department adviser.

“Needless to say, these events pose no danger to the public,” Zoback added.

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