When Youngstown, Ohio, shook on Sept. 29, Karen Fox thought her daughter was crashing down the stairs.
“It rumbled enough where you could hear the windows shaking,” Fox said in a telephone interview. “I ran downstairs and said, ‘My God, are you OK?’ And she looked at me and she says, ‘I was running upstairs to see if you were OK.’”
Earthquakes weren’t recorded around Youngstown until D&L Energy Inc. began injecting wastewater from drilling into a 9,300-foot disposal well in December 2010. From March through Nov. 25, there were nine in an area of about 4.5 square miles west of the shaft, according to the state-coordinated Ohio Seismic Network.
As hydraulic fracturing produces natural gas by forcing chemically treated water and sand underground, groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council question whether the risks of the process are worth it. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report Dec. 8 linked so-called fracking in Wyoming to contaminated groundwater. Now, with temblors in states including Ohio, Arkansas and Texas that researchers say may have been caused by wastewater wells, residents also have to worry about their houses falling apart, said Fox.
“Back in March, when these first started, nobody was thinking anything of it -- it’s just Mother Nature,” said Fox, a 46-year-old medical secretary and president of the city’s West Side Citizen’s Coalition. As earthquakes continue to hit, “more people are getting more concerned.”
Not Our Fault
Scientists such as Jeffrey Dick, chairman of Youngstown State University’s geology department, said that though the quakes’ timing and location suggest wells may be to blame, more data is needed. The National Academy of Sciences has said a committee will release a report on the issue next year.
Ben Lupo, president and chief executive of D&L Energy, said in a telephone interview that he doesn’t think his well is causing them and that “if these things weren’t safe, we would not put them in.” The well wasn’t operating during the Nov. 25 earthquake because it was the day after Thanksgiving, he said.
About 7 million barrels of wastewater from drilling have been injected annually into Ohio wells since 1985 without incident because the practice is closely regulated by federal laws and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said Thomas E. Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a trade association with more than 1,450 members.
Surrendering to Panic
“There’s people that are simply opposed to oil and gas development, and they’ll seize on any issue, no matter what the issue is, and no matter what the facts, and try to use that to create hysteria,” Stewart said in a telephone interview from Granville.
The earthquakes in Youngstown, which is roughly equidistant from Cleveland and Pittsburgh, ranged from 2.1 to 2.7 on the Richter scale, the Ohio Seismic Network said. Earthquakes with magnitude of about 2.0 or less on the Richter scale, which has no upper limit, are not commonly felt by people, according to the U. S. Geological Survey. The Aug. 23 earthquake that had an epicenter in Virginia and was felt across the East Coast had a 5.8 magnitude.
New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio and parts of Kentucky and Tennessee sit atop the Marcellus and Utica shale formations and the states have been wrestling with how to regulate drilling and fracking to tap natural gas as deep as 12,000 feet below the earth’s surface. Governor John Kasich has said the practice “could change Ohio,” and has even proposed having his state, Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania run their vehicle fleets on compressed natural gas.
Energy companies. including Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Halliburton Co., are benefiting from fracking, which Kasich has said also can be a boost for producers such as U.S. Steel Corp. that supply tubes and products needed for production.
Businesses that handle waste fluid also may benefit, according to Michael Roomberg, a New York-based analyst for Ladenburg Thalmann. Stephen Trauber, global head of energy investment banking at Citigroup Inc., predicts industry takeovers will increase as demand for water-management expertise rises.
Still, as more disposal wells are drilled to handle the volume of wastewater, Dick urged caution.
“You certainly don’t want have an injection well that’s coincident with earthquakes, and then five months from now we get a 5.5 magnitude quake that knocks down a couple buildings,” Dick said in a telephone interview from Youngstown.
Follow the Fluid
The state required D&L Energy to conduct a test using radioactive material to trace whether the fluid being injected in the well is going only to the areas allowed by its permit, said Tom Tomastik, deputy chief of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.
D&L Energy, a 26-year-old closely held company based in Youngstown, has agreed to put a concrete plug at the bottom of the well if tests show that fluid is reaching bedrock levels, Lupo said. There has been no unusual seismic activity at the state’s other 190 permitted injection wells, Tomastik said.
“Just to blanket say that we’re going to put a moratorium on drilling or a moratorium on disposal when we don’t really know what is happening, that’s, I don’t think, the way to go,” Tomastik said.
The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission did stop well disposal in August after a swarm of earthquakes. There were about 1,250 quakes recorded through July after two injection wells started operating last year, said Scott Ausbrooks, geohazards supervisor for the Arkansas Geological Survey in Little Rock.
Ausbrooks did a study with the University of Memphis and concluded there was “a plausible relationship between the injection wells and the earthquakes” after a previously unknown fault system was discovered, he said.
The state Oil and Gas Commission ordered that one injection well be shut down and operators agreed to stop using three others, “erring on the side of caution and public protection,” Shane Khoury, the commission’s deputy director and general counsel, said in a telephone interview.
After the wells were shut down, there were only four earthquakes recorded in the area from July through October, down from an average of four a day, Ausbrooks said.
A 2010 study on a swarm of earthquakes in 2008 and 2009 near injection wells in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Southern Methodist University concluded that the quakes “may be the result of fluid injection.”
A 1990 U.S. Geological Survey report found that “injection of fluid into deep wells has triggered documented earthquakes” in Colorado, Texas, New York, New Mexico, Nebraska and Ohio. It highlighted more than 70 quakes in July 1987 in Ashtabula, Ohio, about a kilometer from the bottom of a hazardous-waste disposal well in operation only a year. There had been no other known earthquakes within 30 kilometers since 1857, it said.
While well disposal requires sustained pressure as liquid is forced underground, fracking itself is a short, sharp shock as water breaks up rock and is withdrawn.
There have been fewer reports of earthquakes connected with fracking, though the Oklahoma Geological Survey concluded in an August report that it might have induced 43 temblors near Elmore City during 24 hours in January. Cuadrilla Resources Ltd., a U.K.-based explorer, also suspended fracking near Blackpool, England, in June based on a concern it may have triggered a quake.
The incidents raise questions about whether enough is known about the practice to ignore risks in the name of jobs and domestic energy, said Ohio state Representative Robert F. Hagan, a Youngstown Democrat. And the state may become a “dumping ground” for wastewater, he said in a telephone interview from Columbus.
During the first three quarters of 2011, nearly 53 percent of the 368.3 million gallons injected into Ohio’s wells came from out of state, according to data provided by the Natural Resources Department. The number of new permits for injection wells increased to 24 from 10 last year and five in 2009, records show.
“I’m paranoid about it,” Hagan said. “I would travel out to California thinking that anytime now, there could be an earthquake. Well, anytime now, there could be an earthquake in Youngstown.”
Lupo said he plans to have five more disposal wells operating near the city next year.