The boom in drilling for natural gas that is causing so many problems in Pennsylvania is coming to Ohio. What is particularly alarming to environmentalists is that the natural gas industry is exempt from the federal Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts, leaving underfunded state agencies responsible for protecting our waters.
The new "fracking" technology used to get natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica deep shale formations isn't anything like the conventional drilling that has been used in southeastern Ohio for decades. There is a real question of whether regulations that were developed for conventional drilling are still adequate.
Fracking, more properly called horizontal hydraulic fracturing, uses a combination of techniques to break up gas bearing rock, including horizontal drilling, chemical additives, large volumes of water and high pressures. In a horizontal fracking, the well is drilled vertically to the shale formation and then horizontally for several thousand feet. Fluid and a propping material such as sand are sent down the well under extremely high pressure to create fractures in the rock. The propping material holds the fractures open, so much more gas can be recovered.
Chemicals are added to the water to prevent bacterial build-up and the formation of mineral deposits and rust. Most of this fracking fluid remains trapped underground, but around 20 percent of it comes back to the surface. This flowback is twice as salty as seawater. It picks up minerals from the shale formation such as iron, calcium, magnesium, barium, sulfur, suspended solids and naturally occurring radioactive elements such as radium.
Horizontal fracking uses more chemicals and more toxic chemicals than conventional drilling. The drilling company is not required by law to disclose the chemicals used. These chemicals are brought in by truck and mixed onsite. If there were an accident, the landowner would have no idea what was spilled on his land.
Horizontal fracking uses much more water than conventional drilling, up to four million gallons to fracture a single well. It generates much greater volumes of contaminated water that has to be disposed of. Often a large pond is built where the flowback is stored until it can be hauled away. Many hundreds of tanker truck trips are needed to bring in water and chemicals and haul out flowback. That is significant traffic for rural roads that are not designed for heavy loads.
Hydraulic fracking poses a real threat of contaminating drinking water supplies. The drilling industry claims that fracking fluid trapped thousands of feet underground will not migrate up into drinking water aquifers. In other states, problems closer to the surface have polluted ground and surface waters. Obviously, fracking fluid and its chemical additives can spill. An improperly lined flowback storage pond can rupture or leak.
High pressure fluids will find any imperfections in a poorly constructed well casing, creating pathways for contamination of aquifers. The well shaft may penetrate abandoned coal mines, oil or gas wells, or coal seams, which become sources of pollutants that get into drinking water. This is a serious concern for southeastern Ohio where the land is riddled with unmapped wells and mines.
The Ohio Sierra Club and other organizations are asking the state legislature to impose a moratorium ordering the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to withhold approval of new well permits involving horizontal hydraulic fracturing until such time as these drilling practices are demonstrated to be safe.