A community forum on shale exploration and the fracking process Tuesday night at Marietta College didn't settle the debate, but many said they hope it will serve as the start of a conversation.
"I think it really came out more questions than answers," said Bill Baker, 63, of Lowell. "It opened up a lot of avenues for homework ... not just taking everything at face value."
Baker said he's been approached about leasing the deep mineral rights on his property for possible shale drilling and he wanted to learn more about the process and the possible risks and rewards. He felt the forum's panel answered a lot of questions and raised more and he'd like to see similar events as the area prepares for the potential shale boom that people hope could bring economic benefits and some fear could do environmental damage.
The panel consisted of Bob Chase, chairman of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College; Richard Wittberg, executive director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department; Frank Leeper, vice president of production for Zanesville-based Producers Service Corporation, a supplier of hydraulic fracturing and acidizing services; and Paul Feezel, chairman of Carroll Concerned Citizens, a landowner rights group in Carroll County and a member of the Ohio Sierra Club's Horizontal Gas Well subcommittee.
Chase and Leeper explained the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," and how the industry works to make sure it's safe. Wittberg and Feezel explained their concerns that more study and regulation is needed to make sure the potential benefits of tapping the natural gas and oil resources of the Utica shale formation aren't outweighed by risks to public health and the environment.
"At this point, I can't stand in front of you and say it's safe," Wittberg said. "I can't. I think it's largely safe. But I still think it's rolling the dice."
Thursday - Innovation Ohio, a progressive think tank, plans to release a report entitled "Fracking, Fairness and the Future: Making Sure Ohio Taxpayers and Workers Share in Benefits."
Feb. 7 - Gov. John Kasich's State of the State address, of which fracking is expected to be a major topic.
Feb. 21 - Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group will hold a community event featuring Cheryl Johncox, executive director of the Buckeye Forest Council, focusing on fracking, the public health and environmental impacts and state regulations at 6:30 p.m. at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 232 Third St., Marietta.
Despite those apparent divisions, the panelists were cordial and often shared some laughs, including when Chase and Wittberg jokingly raised their fists in a fighting position when moderator Tina Thomas, a local attorney and petroleum engineer, reminded the more than 150 people in attendance to remain civil when asking questions.
Several questions focused on the exemption of hydraulic fracturing operations from certain federal clean air and water requirements. Leeper said that decision was made by the government because there had been no direct link found between fracking and the contamination of freshwater aquifers and due to the potential cost to the industry.
Even so, Chase said, there is plenty of oversight on the oil and gas industry.
"We're held to stricter requirements and EPA regulations than a lot of other industries," he said.
Fracking involves injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into wells to fracture the shale formation, allowing access to the minerals inside. Those chemicals were the subject of other questions, with people pointing out many of them are known carcinogens.
Leeper said the potential hazards of those materials are based on certain levels of exposure. Fracking fluid is 99.5 percent water and sand, so the chemicals in question - many of which are used in common household products - are quite diluted, he said.
"Our industry is diluting these products by a huge amount," he said. "I dare you to do some research on products you touch every day and find out how many of them are carcinogens if you feed enough of them to a rat in a laboratory."
Chase and Leeper reiterated that the actual fracturing is done thousands of feet below freshwater aquifers, so it is a "physical impossibility," as Leeper put it, for the fracture to extend to the water supply. But Feezel said his concern is what happens closer to the surface, with spills or failures in the casing running through the aquifer.
"As a landowner, that's (the deep fractures) the least of my concerns," he said.
Feezel said he's worried that the state of Ohio does not require baseline testing so there will be something to which to compare the water quality after drilling is done.
Chase said baseline testing is vital and something people signing mineral right leases should make sure is included at the company's expense.
"They will do it," he said. "I guarantee you they will pay for the test.
"We as landowners have to take control, just like you're doing in Carroll County," he said to Feezel.
Baseline testing is also important, Chase and Leeper said, because there are other sources by which oil and gas can get into the water supply.
Muskingum Township resident Jann Adams, a member of the local Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group, said she appreciated the diversity of opinions represented on the panel. Too often, she said, events are divided between supporters of fracking and those wary of or opposed to it.
"Everyone's in their own court. And this put everyone in the same place," she said, adding she hoped more events like it held in the future, possibly in other portions of the county.