Special Investigation: The Earthquakes and Toxic Waste of Ohio's Fracking Boom
Mike Ludwig, Truthout | Report
Fracking is facilitating an oil and gas boom in the Buckeye State, and Ohioans have reason to be shaken up about the issue. Between the spring of 2011 and early 2012, a fracking waste injection well known as Northstar 1 caused more than a dozen minor earthquakes near Youngstown, Ohio, including one 4.0 magnitude earthquake that was felt for miles.
A Truthout investigation has revealed that Ohio regulators permitted Northstar 1 operators to raise its maximum injection pressure twice, once shortly before and once again after the well caused two initial earthquakes on March 17, 2011. The injection well had the highest pressure of any well in the state, but the well operator was not required to conduct seismic testing before drilling and operating the well.
The well was drilled more than 9,000 feet into a deep rock formation called the Precambrian basement, where the bottom of the well was left uncased, or "open hole," allowing drilling waste to flow freely into the underground formation, according to geological documents obtained by Truthout. It appears the drilling waste fluid lubricated a previously unknown fault as drilling waste moved through the Precambrian layer and caused the series of earthquakes.
A spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Nature Resources (ODNR), which permitted Northstar 1 and regulates oil and gas waste injection wells, told Truthout they had not had enough information about the earthquake activity when the pressure increases were approved and have since reformed their permitting process.
Crucial data about Northstar 1 and the Precambrian formation appears to have existed during well operation. As Northstar 1 was initially drilled, researchers with Battelle, a massive nonprofit research firm, teamed up with state geologists to collect data from deep within the well as part of a "high priority" research project on the region's geological potential for underground disposal of carbon dioxide waste from coal burning power plants. In its preliminary report linking Northstar 1 to the earthquakes, ODNR stated that, "there are observed permeability zones" where waste could permeate the Precambrian basement "in the 'piggyback' logs recorded by Battelle," but that data was not made available to regulators prior to waste injection because the project lacked funding to fully process the logs at the time.
Battelle did obtain "final processing" of the data logs by late March 2011, around the same time Northstar 1 was increasing its pressure and the first earthquakes struck the area, according to ODNR.
Battelle geologist Neeraj Gupta told Truthout that Battelle shares such research with its partners, such as the ODNR's geologists, but he did not know any specific dates in regards to the Northstar 1 logs. He also said the complicated information recorded in such logs, which can take months or even a year to process, is gathered for the purpose of understanding the region's geology. The logs provide a snapshot of the well during the brief drilling period and it's difficult to use the information to predict future problems like earthquakes if geologists cannot correlate seismic data. The information, Gupta said, is useful to geologists "in hindsight."
Truthout has also confirmed that in most cases the ODNR, federal regulators, and other state regulators do not test the contents of potentially toxic fracking wastewater before disposing of it despite complaints from environmental groups.
Natural gas drilling is bringing new wealth to Ohio and producing cleaner burning fuel, but it also creates a lot of waste. Hydro-fracking rigs use millions of gallons of chemical-laced water to drill for oil and gas. The wastewater that flows back during drilling is saltier than seawater and can contain toxic metals and radioactive substances from deep underground, so authorities in Ohio allow disposal companies to inject the wastewater back underground into spent gas and oil wells. The waste is shot down a well and left to mingle deep underground, where drillers rely on natural formations to confine the waste.
Read More - Gas Rush: Fracking in Depth
Fracking wastewater is also recycled, treated and stored in above ground pits, but these methods carry the risk of contaminating the surface of the Earth, where life is generally better without toxic waste. Ohio has many old gas wells that can be filled with the waste, so injection has become the method preferred by regulators and the industry. In recent years, the state has taken in millions of gallons of wastewater from Utica Shale operations in the state's eastern end and millions more from Marcellus Shale drillers in nearby Pennsylvania.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that, every day, the oil and gas industry pumps more than two billion gallons of drilling waste into some portion of 144,000 active wells across the country, and although regulators and the industry will often point out that accidents are rare, a number of documented fracking waste spills; contamination events; and outbreaks of minor earthquakes in Arkansas, Ohio, and other states have environmentalists up in arms.
Fracking Hazardous Waste Exemption
Under federal law, wastes deemed "hazardous" are injected into strictly regulated Class I underground disposal wells. But more than two decades ago, the oil and gas industry worked with the EPA to exempt oil and gas fracking waste from being considered "hazardous" waste. Federal regulators recognize that "the exemption does not mean these wastes could not present a hazard to human health and the environment if improperly managed," according to EPA documents.
Like all oil and gas drilling waste wells, the Northstar 1 well that was linked to the Ohio earthquakes is a Class II well. Class II wells are specifically used to store oil and gas drilling waste and subject to fewer safety requirements than Class I wells.
In states such as Ohio, state regulatory agencies like the ODNR have received primary regulatory authority over Class II wells from the EPA.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NDRC) has called on the EPA to end the hazardous waste exemption for fracking fluids. NRDC senior policy adviser Amy Mall told Truthout that she believes the EPA is looking into the issue, but has yet to formally respond to the NRDC's request.
"There is lots of evidence that the waste can be extremely toxic that is being released into the environment in ways that endangers human health," Mall said. "The oil and gas industry should play by the same rules as any other industry that generates toxic waste."
Ohio environmental activists are touting a recently released independent analysis of fracking waste by Ben Stout, a biology professor at Wheeling Jesuit University. According to his analysis, the drilling waste fluid is hazardous waste and "should be treated as such."
For example, Stout found elevated levels of the dangerous heavy metals arsenic and barium in the drilling brine at concentrations that exceeded the acceptable drinking water standards 370 and 145 times, respectively.
Oversight could increase in Ohio in response to earthquake scare. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, an openly pro-drilling Republican, recently issued an executive order giving a top ODNR official the authority to order seismic testing of injection wells. ODNR bought new seismic testing equipment and added reforms to its permitting process, including the evaluation of "the potential of conducting seismic surveys" of injection wells.
Earthquakes Shake Ohio Regulators
On March 16, 2011, ODNR permitted Northstar 1 operator D&L Energy to increase the maximum pressure of the well from 1,890 pounds per square inch (psi) to 2,250 psi, making it the highest pressure well in Ohio, according to ODNR records. The first earthquakes hit the area the next day, but ODNR claims the well pressure did not exceed 1,890 psi until March 19.
ODNR allowed the pressure at Northstar 1 to be increased again to 2,500 psi on May 3. ODNR claims regulators did not have enough seismic information at the time.
Earthquakes continued near the well in the months to come and the agency would later tell news outlets that there was no correlation between Northstar 1 and the earthquakes. The agency changed its tune in March 2012 and confirmed that fluids had caused an earthquake originating deep in the Precambrian basement rock.
After the 4.0 earthquake hit on December 31, 2011, Governor Kasich quickly placed a moratorium on injection wells in the area and regulators banned drilling in the deep Precambrian layer.
According to ODNR records, there was only one seismometer - a device used to detect and measure earthquakes - in the area until December 2011, when a new director took over at the agency and brought in an outside research firm to collect additional data. Northstar 1 was quickly shut down within a month after newly deployed seismometers detected another earthquake near Northstar 1 about nine months after the first earthquake was recorded.
In it's initial report, ODNR cites the observed "permeability zones" in the Precambrian basement observed in "piggyback logs" kept by the massive nonprofit research firm Battelle as evidence linking Northstar 1 to the earthquakes. These logs, however, "were not available to inform regulators of possible issues ... prior to well operation," due to lack of funding and were instead later made available to "provide geologists with additional information on the region's geological formations."
Northstar 1 operator D&L Energy criticized the ODNR's preliminary report, saying ODNR permitted the company to drill into the Precambrian rock and then used the site to collect "geological information."
"The current preliminary report does not indicate ODNR accepts any responsibility for its decision," D&L Energy said in a statement earlier this year.
Battelle oversees a regional partnership established by the US Department of Energy (DOE) that partners public agencies, big coal companies and university researchers together to study the potential for carbon sequestration in the Midwest. Carbon sequestration involves pumping carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants deep underground and the DOE and big energy firms have been exploring the technology for years to quell concerns about global warming and usher in a new generation of coal-burning power plants.
Internal documents from the Ohio Coal Development Office obtained by Truthout indicate that the ODNR geologists who alerted Battelle about Northstar 1 considered data collecting during drilling at the well to be a "high priority opportunity" for a carbon sequestration research project under this regional collaboration.
Gupta, a Battelle geologist, told Truthout that he doubts geologists could have used complicated piggyback log data, which takes a snapshot of a well during the brief drilling period, to predict problems such as earthquakes without correlating seismic data or doing a "detailed characterization."
"It's a learning opportunity for all of us," said Gupta, who added that such data is very important to advance geological understanding of a region.
ODNR's former chief geologist, Larry Wickstrom, worked with Battelle and industry groups to set up carbon sequestration piggyback projects and was recently fired from his position as Ohio's top state geologist. Top ODNR officials said they removed Wickstrom specifically because he withheld important information from other divisions in the agency on several occasions, according to ODNR documents originally obtained by the Ohio newspaper The Athens NEWS. The documents do not mention the Northstar 1 piggyback log data, but cite several examples, including an incident in January 2012 when Wickstrom failed to inform colleagues about an earthquake near Youngstown until four days after it occurred.
In a note to another colleague, ODNR Deputy Director Andy Ware wrote that Wickstrom's replacement should be "an objective expert who is not so closely connected to the industry ... and who will keep us fully informed of all decision making the Division of Geological Survey."
The carbon sequestration technology was once thought to be an innovating new way to guarantee a sustainable future for coal-powered energy during the climate crisis, but interest and investment has tapered off in recent years. A study recently released by Stanford scientists might further put the idea to rest. The researchers found that large-scale carbon sequestration operations could trigger - you guessed it - earthquakes.
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.
Mike Ludwig is a Truthout reporter. Follow Mike on Twitter @ludwig_mike.