By Liliana Martinez
Supporters of hydroelectric fracturing, or fracking, say it could propel Ohio to energy independence in just a few years, but opponents counter that the environmental damage it causes outweighs its benefits. Now, as farmers in Knox County are considering whether to allow fracking on their land, the debate is coming to Kenyon.
The discovery of a new type of shale that contains untapped and significant amounts of oil and gas in Canada and the Rust Belt of the U.S. made fracking a vital issue in Ohio. The rock, Utica shale, lies below the conventionally-drilled Marcellus shale. Utica shale, about 7,500 feet below the ground, is often drilled horizontally for about a mile underground. This shale contains so much new oil and natural gas that those who had dismissed the future of oil exploration and drilling are now planning for an energy revolution that could push Ohio into energy independence.
The Economic Benefits of Fracking
In a talk at Kenyon last week, Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP), spoke about the benefits of fracking in Ohio.
Rhedas talk focused on frackings economic benefits to the state of Ohio, but she began her talk by explaining how fracking works. Hydroelectric fracturing involves drilling into the earth and injecting millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the hole to extract oil and gas. This pressurized mixture of sand and specific chemicals creates fractures in the oil and gas-rich shale, releasing them into the drilling well.
Advocates for the fracking process including Reda say this process is perfectly safe as long as the well is built correctly, and with trillions of tons of oil and gas buried under the ground, they emphasize the economic miracle the discovery of this shale represents.
Landowners can also benefit from drilling by earning royalties from any oil and gas found, and they often receive free oil and gas from the company they contract with.
The Ecological Costs of Fracking
Others are not so sure. The chemicals used in the fracturing process are all necessary, according to advocates, but the wastewater they produce is controversial. Activists protesting against fracking say the water mixture, called brine, that emerges from the wells as a byproduct is unsafe and can harm human, animal and plant life.
Companies usually dispose of brine by drilling an injection well that receives the wastewater fracking creates. These injection wells have also been sources of controversy. A few months ago, scientists at Columbia Universitys Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory attributed an earthquake in Youngstown, Ohio to fracking wastewater in a well that was drilled too deep. The well ultimately caused nine small earthquakes between March and Nov. 2011.
The chemical mixture companies use to facilitate the fracturing has also caused controversy. In several incidents in Pennsylvania, lack of oversight allowed faulty well casings to crack and release this mixture into aquifers, contaminating them. So far, no such incidents have occurred in Ohio, but activists are concerned.
There are a lot of concerns about the potential for water contamination, soil contaminations and the health effects of those related to the higher volume of drilling thats used in the new processes, said Sandy Stibitz 14, a member of Kenyons Environmental Campus Organization (ECO). So ECO is in general opposed to the practice. We think its too risky at this point. Not enough is known and there isnt enough regulation.
Stibitz said Redas talk was informative, but expressed doubt about some of her assertions. I thought that it was definitely one-sided and that she minimized the discussion of potential risks, she said. I thought she totally glazed over the risks for water and oil pollution, and when people brought up questions related to that, she sort of brushed them aside and didnt really delve into them.
Fracking and the Kenyon Community
The controversies surrounding fracking are of particular importance to Kenyon, since the College owns a substantial amount of land in the area. Indeed, anyone in Knox County who owns more than 20 acres of land might possess drillable resources, since the Utica shale extends through this area.
Kenyon is currently working with ECO to draft its own policy concerning fracking, which Board of Trustees will eventually need to approve, according to Stibitz.
While ECO is officially against fracking, Stibitz said the sentiments of the local community make the issue more complicated. Were students and visitors in this community, so its not our business to tell landowners around here what to do, Stibitz said. So while were opposed to the practice, we understand that its more complicated than that, and we want to ensure that water and soil resources are protected and that peoples rights are protected throughout this process.
Kenyon isnt the only local landowner considering the effects of fracking on its land. Since drilling here is still a relatively new phenomenon, the mineral rights to land usually worked out during the contracting process when someone buys land are often not included in the older contracts, which means firms can drill on someones land and give the owner no royalties at all. For those who do have mineral rights, there are usually royalties given to those who own land, based on what percentage of the land is explored by the firm. Many landowners also receive signing fees for joining lease cooperatives.
Regulation in Ohio
Ohios fracking regulations are among the strongest in the nation, according to Reda, whose firm has been fracturing wells since before there were regulations. The added oversight has prevented accidents that have occurred elsewhere, she said. We have hydraulically fractured 80,000 wells in the state, she said. We have not had an issue with hydraulic fracturing here in Ohio [or] in the 1.2 million times weve done it in the United States.
Assistant Professor of Physics and Scientific Computing Eric Holdener also explained that Ohios stricter regulations will mean the state wont follow Pennsylvanias example with faulty wells and contaminated groundwater. Ohio has better oversight and regulations and testing of the well heads that are drilled so they can make sure the seals are done properly, he said.
Ohio also forces fracking companies to disclose the specific chemicals used to hydraulically fracture shale, unlike many other states wherein the activity takes place. Many of the chemicals can be toxic if they come into contact with humans, and full disclosure would help in the case that a landowner feels his or her well has caused water contamination. Ohio remains one of the states closest to full disclosure, and Reda asserts that all companies are required to list all the chemicals they use in disclosure sheets.
Josh Harris, Communications Director for Stewards of the Earth, a group that fights fracking in Knox and neighboring counties, however, said there are loopholes in the law. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources released a list of the chemicals firms inject, but the list is not comprehensive, Harris said. Many are vague or categorical rather than specific. A bill currently under consideration in the Ohio Senate and backed by Republican Governor John Kasich aims to address the issue. It would require full disclosure of all fracking chemicals except in the case of those deemed proprietary or trade secret. But in a similar case in Wyoming, after the regulation passed, over 50 secret exceptions were made, Harris said.
Because of such loopholes, Redas comment that Ohio is a full disclosure state is inaccurate. I was with a Knox County community member who Ive been working with on the fracking issue this whole year, and he cited a number of things in her talk that were factually incorrect, he said.
Whatever its legal controversies, fracking has redefined energy acquisition in Ohio.
Five years ago, three years ago, two years ago we were talking about peak oil and how were way past the prime and going down in oil and gas extraction in this country and our heyday is over, Holdener said. Now were talking about reserves in the trillions of cubic feet of gas and thousands of billions of barrels of oil. Doesnt anyone else think that its a remarkable thing that we can suddenly become energy independent almost overnight?