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Ohio Puts Marcellus Frackers on Hiatus

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted March 17, 2014

Despite a general lack of evidence tying earthquakes to fracking, the controversial process has become the fall guy in a string of recent events in Ohio.

Last Monday and Tuesday, a series of earthquakes registering 2.6 and 3.0 on the Richter scale led officials to order Houston-based Hilcorp Energy to cease drilling operations while state inspectors investigated whether or not there was any link to company drilling and the earth tremors.

Five earthquakes in total took place in that time felt by the residents of Mahoning County in northeastern Ohio, which brought the grand total in the last week to 11. By Tuesday, operations were at a standstill while the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) looked into the matter.

There was no significant damage reported, but the U.S. Geological Survey pinpointed the epicenter of some of these quakes to be in the vicinity of seven oil and gas production wells in Poland Township, Ohio, where Hilcorp operates.

Any link between oil and gas production and seismic activity is usually related to disposal of wastewater in deep injection wells – not the actual fracking process. That’s an important thing to remember here.

“ODNR is using all available resources to determine the exact circumstances surrounding this event and will take the appropriate actions necessary to protect public health and safety,” a representative for the department told The Huffington Post in an email. However, the agency added that available information indicates the quakes were not connected to Hilcorp’s operations. 

Still, there are strong contentions that the two are related. This isn’t the first time earthquakes have been linked to fracking in Ohio. A disposal well was permanently shut down in 2012 after fracking wastewater was injected into the ground in Youngstown and later tied to a series of earthquakes.

What is important in this matter is that Hilcorp has no disposal wells, only production wells. Any comparison to Youngstown would carry little to no merit. Furthermore, Hilcorp is in complete ooperation and compliance every step of the way. They want to clear their name and find answers as much as the next guy.

“We welcome the inquiry into exactly what happened,” Hilcorp said in that same emailed statement to The Huffington Post. “[We] encourage state inspectors to provide the community with as much information as possible.”

Hilcorp has been drilling a number of wells in Ohio without any incident.

In the Marcellus

If fracking keeps catching flack in Ohio, that means one of the nation’s biggest shale plays –the Marcellus shale which takes up a little less than half of Ohio– is going to face an uphill battle to keep production soaring. The region in general has taken heat over the past couple of years in regards to earthquakes. That disposal well in Youngstown that was shut down was used from natural gas drilling in the Marcellus.

The shale deposit has been able to handle its share of heat, but depending on this most recent investigation, and if accusations continue to fly – many energy companies will have to rethink their strategies in this vastly rich region.

In fact, changes are already being made. Even before the ODNR completes its investigation, state regulators are starting to impose new rules for drillers – rules that would make it harder to drill – rules that stem from finding concluded by the Youngstown well.

That well was simply installed entirely too close to a fault that has since been identified in the Precambrian basement rock.

The Effect

For Hilcorp Energy, they are the only such operator in the area, and only about 15 miles from Youngstown, but everyone in Ohio will likely be affected by incurring changes. You’ll find a list of those companies here.

A shutdown like the one taking place with Hilcorp can be severe, and while this latest cease order is made out of caution, who’s to say what could happen next?

Right now, it’s all about gathering the facts and examining the data. Hilcorp has drilled in the Utica shale in Ohio in recent years, and have not encountered a single problem.

That being said, Oklahoma published a report this month that showed wastewater disposal as the trigger to its biggest earthquake in its state’s recorded history – a 5.7 magnitude quake in 2011. Texas, too, has seen an increase in seismic activity since the shale boom took off.

The culprit here again seems to be wastewater disposal wells, not the act of fracking.

In all existing evidence, if wells can be properly located, even they will not cause earthquakes. The well in

Youngstown was inadequately placed, didn’t have enough data presented to regulators, and therefore resulted in an increase in seismic activity.

New rules and regulations would require a complete roll of geological logs to be submitted to the state before any such disposal well could be drilled and employed.

Ohio is making demands that will protect its environment and public safety. This is good. The new standards being put in place should accomplish that goal, and with a little foresight, it should be business as usual for most companies operating in Ohio.

A setback, perhaps, but things will return to normal.

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