Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Explaining Pennsylvania’s Link To Ohio Earthquakes

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Girard, Ohio experienced a 4.0 earthquake on December 31

Everybody wants to ring in New Year’s Eve with a bang.

Most people just want a heads-up the bang is coming.

Diane Slender was at home, drying her hair, on the afternoon of December 31st. “I was in the bedroom and this big – baboom! My husband thought I fell,” she said. “And he’s like, are you all right?”

Linda DeProfo felt it, too. She was closing up the candy shop she runs, when, “we heard the boom and the front window was shaking back and forth and we didn’t know what it was. …It took a couple minutes and then we realized, it was another earthquake.”

That’s right – another earthquake. The New Year’s Eve quake, a 4.0, was the second within a week, and the 12th of 2011. And this wasn’t Los Angeles, this wasn’t San Francisco – this was Girard, Ohio, just north of Youngstown.

The cause for the quakes, according to a preliminary report from Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources: a deep injection well, where brine, fracking fluid and other drilling waste is deposited deep underground. It turns out the drillers were likely injecting the waste directly onto a previously-unknown fault line.

Immediate Suspicions

Bob Hagan also felt the December 31 earthquake. He thought his son had fallen down the stairs, moving a piece of furniture.  Hagan represents the Youngstown area in Ohio’s state House.

It didn’t take long for the Democrat to tie the quake to the Northstar 1 injection well, located on a site next to a steel mill. “Less than seconds,” Hagan recalled. “I am less than one mile from the injection well…and had been suspicious of it.”

Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources was suspicious too.

That’s because minor earthquakes had begun rattling the Youngstown area in March 2011, a few months after a company had started injecting brine, fracking fluid and other drilling waste deep underground into the well.

Ohio’s environmental officials suspected a connection and began investigating. In fact, they had shut down the Northstar 1 well down on December 30th, due to strong evidence the site was responsible for 11 minor quakes.

(Scroll down to the bottom of this story to read the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ preliminary report on the Youngstown earthquakes.)

Injection Wells Are Nothing New

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Youngstown's Northstar 1 well has been tied to 12 earthquakes

The earthquakes have brought increased scrutiny to Ohio’s deep well injection program.  These wells have been around for decades, and have absorbed more than 200 million barrels of oil and gas drilling waste since 1982, when Ohio began regulating the sites and tracking their intake. The wells are the EPA’s preferred way of disposing drilling fluid, and there are more than 144,000 across the country.

But the amount of fluid going into these wells has been increasing due to Pennsylvania’s shale drilling boom. Hydraulic fracturing uses a lot of water – about 4 million gallons a day during the height of the extraction process. That obviously generates a lot of waste. Up until a year ago, many western Pennsylvania drillers had been taking their brine and fracking fluid to municipal water treatment centers, which were filtering the fluid, and then dumping it into rivers.

After the drilling industry admitted the discharge was likely tied to elevated bromide levels in western Pennsylvania rivers, Governor Tom Corbett’s administration stopped the practice.

More drillers are treating and reusing their fracking fluid these days, but a lot of the waste that was going into the rivers is now trucked to Ohio. (Pennsylvania doesn’t have the geology to support many injection wells; there are fewer than ten in the Keystone State.)

On top of that, there’s simply more drilling going on in Pennsylvania. The amount of Pennsylvania drilling waste going to injection wells increased by 389 percent in the last six months of 2011, compared to the corresponding 2010 reporting period.

Ohio’s 177 injection wells absorbed 12 million barrels of waste last year, with about 20 percent coming from Pennsylvania. What’s in it for Ohio? The Buckeye State charges a higher per-barrel fee for out-of-state waste, and netted 1.5 million dollars from the practice last year.

“We Need To Address The Issue At Hand”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

RC Pander explains his well's filtration process

RC Pander operates six wells in the Akron area. His company is more than 30 years old, and he’ll tell you his wells have never caused any earthquakes.

The company’s wellsl typically processes between 4,000 and 5,000 barrels of waste a day, taking fluid from tanker trucks, filtering it, and then injecting it underground. In 2011, this well took in 187,000 barrels of brine and fracking fluid from Pennsylvania drilling sites.

Pander plans on drilling more injection wells, as gas production in Ohio and Pennsylvania keeps ramping up. But Ohio has put an unofficial moratorium on injection well permits, as it investigates the Youngstown earthquakes. Pander said he’s frustrated by the move. “If you’ve got a car that has a problem with it, does that mean we should take the cars off the road and go back to horse and buggy? We need to address the issue at hand,” he said. “In this case we need to find out what’s going on with that well and take corrective action.”

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

The Pander 1 injection well

The Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources’ preliminary report on the Youngstown earthquakes  points out the Northstar well hadn’t violated any regulations.

“The company did nothing wrong,” said Rick Simmers, who heads ODNR’s Oil and Gas Division. “They constructed the well properly and they operated the well properly. If indeed we show a correlation, then it may be incredible bad luck that they chose a location and we permitted a location over what may be a previously unknown fault.”

It’s important to point out Ohio’s investigation of the quakes is still preliminary.  There’s more research needed on the exact link between the tremors and the drilling.

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Rick Simmers regulates gas drilling at Ohio's Department of Natural Resources

Regardless, Simmers said the state is moving ahead with new regulation. It won’t let new wells drill as deep as the 9,000-foot Northstar well. That’s because the lower you go, the more powerful the rock formation can be, if it has a fault

Ohio will also require more tests before new wells are drilled, to make sure the ground is stable. ODNR has even purchased seismographs, to keep track of any future tremors.

Simmers said even after the Youngstown quakes, these injection wells are still the best way out there to get rid of drilling waste.  “If indeed [the Northstar 1 well] did cause the earthquake, the rarity of that kind of occurrence is so great,” he said. “And other methodologies can be used to help eliminate even that rare potential, that it’s still a very safe process.”

Diane Slender – the woman who was drying her hair during the earthquake – said she remains skeptical. “Everybody wants the jobs,” she said. “But then you have to worry about what comes with it …. I guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens.”

Pennsylvania has more than two thousand shale wells in production, but Ohio’s drilling boom is only just beginning.

Gas extraction in Ohio’s Utica Shale is expected to grow exponentially over the next few years. That means much more fluid will be shot into its injection wells.

Read the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Report:

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