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Research & Commentary: EPA and GWPC: Ohio Is Right, Anti-Frackers Wrong on Class II Injection Wells

October 29, 2015

Two recently released reports on Ohio’s Class II wastewater injection well program have discredited claims made by opponents of hydraulic fracturing, specifically that the creation of wells leads directly to earthquakes and that the Ohio Department of

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Two recently released reports on Ohio’s Class II wastewater injection well program have discredited claims made by opponents of hydraulic fracturing, specifically that the creation of wells leads directly to earthquakes and that the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has neglected to establish proper regulations needed to keep Ohioans safe.

The first report, released by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in September, was produced in direct response to a letter cosigned by 23 anti-fracking groups in Ohio demanding an EPA audit of ODNR’s program and requesting the agency take control of ODNR’s regulatory authority. The anti-fracking groups charged ODNR with violating the Safe Water Drinking Act and providing “inadequate public notice and public participation” in the well permitting process.

EPA found ODNR was running “a good quality program,” contrary to activists’ claims, and EPA noted Ohio had “taken concrete steps to address emerging issues, and in particular has adopted regulations to reduce risk from seismic-related activities.” EPA also found ODNR’s new implementation procedures “enhance rather than reduce the effectiveness of the [EPA-approved] program.”

EPA also pointed to ODNR’s “areas of strong performance,” including its handling of inspections and ability to resolve violations; its siting, construction, and maximum injection pressure permitting processes; and its ability to keep pace with changes in the Class II program.

In response to the claims of “inadequate public notice and … participation,” EPA found ODNR’s communications decisions to be “within the bounds of the EPA-approved program.”

The second report, issued in early October by StatesFirst, a partnership between the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, buttressed EPA’s findings and highlighted ODNR’s management and communications capabilities for praise.

The StatesFirst report more broadly tackles the “fracking causes earthquakes” claim, now one of the go-to arguments of fracking opponents, by noting the “majority” of injection wells “do not pose a hazard for induced seismicity” and “only a few dozen … wells are believed to have induced felt earthquakes.”

Using the term “earthquake” to refer to the minor seismic activity produced by the overwhelming number of injection wells, although technically correct, is probably misleading. When most people think of an earthquake, they think of fatalities, collapsed buildings, chewed-up roadways, fires, and pandemonium. The seismic activity produced by injection wells comes nowhere close to those disasters. Most of these so-called earthquakes cannot even be felt by people.

The biggest “earthquake” produced in Ohio because of an injection well registered only a magnitude 3, which the U.S. Geological Survey notes creates only “vibrations similar to the passing of a truck.” It is much more accurate to describe the rarely experienced seismic activity produced by injection wells as a mere tremor, rather than an earthquake.

Sensible precautions and regulations, such as the ones undertaken in Ohio by ODNR, can mitigate the risks of damage caused in part or in whole by seismic activity created by wastewater disposal injection wells. Other states with a significant fracking presence should follow ODNR’s lead.  

The following documents provide additional information about hydraulic fracturing and seismic activity.

Fracking Facts: The Science, Economics, and Legal Realities
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/fracking-facts-the-science-economics-and-legal-realities
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has been employed in the United States since the 1940s. Although innovation has improved the precision of the process, the essentials are the same. Utilizing horizontal drilling, a mixture of mostly water, sand, and trace amounts of chemicals are used to create fissures in underground shale deposits to allow oil and natural gas trapped in hard rock to move toward the surface to be collected. Activists have blamed fracking and the processes associated with it for emissions of pollutants, earthquakes, and even groundwater contamination, though independent evidence consistently shows these allegations to be false. Leigh Thompson of the Texas Public Policy Foundation argues the evidence supporting fracking bans looks slim when attention is drawn to the facts.

Fracking and Earthquakes
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/fracking-and-earthquakes
Fracking is responsible for some of the greatest growth in oil and gas production the United States has ever experienced. Yet, as U.S. energy extraction increases, so have concerns about the safety of fracking, with the New York Times linking the practice to “Scores of earthquakes.” Research shows, however, that the risk of earthquakes caused by fracking is minimal and can be fixed with modest siting regulations, bonding requirements, and wastewater recycling. Jillian Melchoir of the Independent Women’s Forum writes that it is essential to understand what the science is actually revealing about energy extraction and induced seismicity and to create balanced public policy that allows safe energy extraction to continue.

Managing the Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/managing-the-risks-of--hydraulic-fracturing
Kenneth P. Green of the Fraser Institute argues policymakers should ignore the siren song made by those calling for bans and moratoria on fracking.

Hydraulic Fracturing a Game-Changer for U.S. Energy and Economies
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/hydraulic-fracturing-a-game-changer-for-us-energy-and-economies?source=policybot
In this Policy Study from The Heartland Institute, Heartland Research Fellow Isaac Orr explains the advantages and disadvantages of smart drilling and its alternatives. Orr reviews the background and potential of hydraulic fracturing in the United States and puts that potential in the context of the supply of and demand for oil and gas. He addresses the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, both positive and negative, and public safety issues raised by activists, such as potential harm to drinking water supplies. Orr also discusses how oil and gas production is regulated at the state and national levels and suggests appropriate policies for these two levels of government.

Hydraulic Fracturing: Critical for Energy Production, Jobs, and Economic Growth
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/hydraulic-fracturing-critical-for-energy-production-jobs-and-economic-growth?source=policybot
Increased energy production on private lands in the United States has been one of the most promising economic success stories in recent years. A large part of the success is due to an energy-extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing. Misconceptions about hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, abound. The Heritage Foundation’s Nicolas Loris explains hydraulic fracturing is safe if regulated effectively, greatly increases the nation’s energy production, and fosters job creation.

Potential Injection-Induced Seismicity Associated with Oil & Gas Development: A Primer on Technical and Regulatory Considerations Informing Risk Management and Mitigation
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/potential-injection-induced-seismicity-associated-with-oil--gas-development-a-primer-on-technical-and-regulatory-considerations-informing-risk-management-and-mitigation?source=policybot
In an effort to reduce, and potentially eliminate, induced earthquakes from wastewater disposal wells, state regulators, geologists, seismologists, industry, and environmental groups worked together to create this 148-page report detailing how earthquakes can be caused and the best ways to mitigate the risks associated with fluid disposal.

Triggered Earthquakes and Deep Well Activities
https://www.heartland.org/publications-resources/publications/triggered-earthquakes-and-deep-well-activities?source=policybot
Craig Nicholson and Robert L. Wesson argue historical data regarding oil and natural gas production are important for current discussions of the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and conventional oil and gas operations. As scientists gain a better understanding of what is causing the new wave of seismic activity, they will have a better idea of how to prevent it.

 

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the website of Environment & Climate News at https://www.heartland.org/Center-Climate-Environment/index.html, The Heartland Institute’s website at http://www.heartland.org, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at www.policybot.org.

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Tim Benson joined The Heartland Institute in September 2015 as a policy analyst in the Government Relations Department.
TBenson@heartland.org @HeartlandGR