The shale drilling industry continues to forge ahead in Ohio, with supporters touting its promise of thousands of jobs and a stake in the nation's re-emergence as a leading energy producer. Tomorrow, Crains Cleveland Business will hold its 2014 shale summit, and just as in last year's event, industry advocates will provide updates on production, new infrastructure, and new challenges. But as ideastream's Brian Bull reports, they'll also face some tough questions about environmental concerns.
One of the most provocative images from the fracking debate has been people’s tap water igniting.
In 2012, a Garrettsville, Ohio family’s burning spigot made headlines. NBC News reported that their water packed near hazardous levels of methane.
NBCNewsCLIP: “Could you imagine turning on the faucet in your kitchen, in your bathroom, and the water suddenly ignites….in some cases, creating a fireball, right in your house!” exclaims the reporter.
The clip goes on to suggest nearby drilling into the Utica shale had more than doubled the methane levels in the family’s well water.
An investigation by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources found otherwise, concluding the methane increase had happened naturally. There have been roughly 200 such complaints filed since 2010. So far the ODNR has confirmed only seven cases of contamination, and none due to fracking.
Nevertheless, many activists remain convinced that the method used to release oil and gas trapped deep underground – called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking - is a threat to the environment.
Susie Beiersdorfer is a geologist and member of the Youngstown Bill of Rights Committee, which opposes fracking within city limits.
“With the technology as it is today, unconventional hydraulic fracturing cannot be done safely.”
Ted Auch, an ecologist at Cleveland State University, has been tracking seismic disturbances – earthquakes -- across the Utica Shale region for FracTracker, a non-profit group that monitors oil and gas development nationwide. He says he has found numerous correlations between quakes and injection wells used to store wastewater, although he stops short of concluding the wells caused the quakes.
“I don’t have causation, but I do have a strong degree of correlation between some of the seismic activity in southeast Ohio," says Auch. "The problem is, is the data is not very good for earthquakes with a less than 2.0 magnitude.”
Ohio has been storing millions of barrels of this chemical-laced– and sometimes radioactive -- wastewater from Pennsylvania and other states in roughly 200 injection wells.
Vanessa Pesec, President of the Network for Oil and Gas Accountability and Protection, says these wells also pose a contamination threat.
“The problem is, that these injection wells have well casings," explains Pesec. "The well casing is what separates the contamination from our underground water sources of drinking water. And these well casings fail over time.”
Another sore spot with environmentalists is with the very agencies charged with regulating the drilling industry. They say the Ohio EPA has been fast-tracking permits for shale development without adequate public input or hearings while the agency says it’s held shale companies to the same standards as any other.
Most recently, the Sierra Club of Ohio uncovered an expansive memo - developed within the Department of Natural Resources – outlining a campaign to promote shale development in state parks and forests. The campaign was never carried out, but it’s yet another source of contention.
Brian Lutz, a Kent State professor of biogeochemistry, says there can still be a coming to terms between groups that seem at odds with each other, with informed, direct, and non-biased information.
“This is not an insurmountable challenge that we face," says Lutz. "It’s just simply making sure that we have the right policies in place to satisfy both the environmental concerns as well as to have some of the development ongoing.”
That may be easier said than done, but this week’s Shale Summit in Cleveland could diffuse some of that tension… as it brings those environmental and industrial perspectives to the same table.