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To 'Frack' or not to 'Frack'?

EarthWISE—Megan Quinn Bachman

Ohio, the home of John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and site of the world’s largest oil-producing provinces in the late 19th century, is again at the center of the action in domestic fossil fuel production as a controversial drilling technique, known as fracking, is draining Ohio’s remaining oil and gas reserves. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh has prohibited this extraction method and New York state has issued a moratorium on combining fracking with horizontal drilling while environmental and safety issues are studied.

With fracking (the formal name is hydraulic fracturing), water and chemicals are injected at high pressure to break up rock reservoirs so more oil and gas can be extracted—a practice which has drawn protests from environmentalists in Ohio and elsewhere who are concerned about groundwater contamination and other environmental threats.

But the question is: Are working oil wells in our fields and farms, however drilled, just the price we Ohioans must pay to satiate our fossil fuel addictions? With global oil production peaking and the number of new large oil finds dwindling, is increased domestic production in Ohio and other states through fracking a vital contribution to our energy security, or a fate to be fought?

Though Col. Edwin L. Drake got all the glory in Pennsylvania in 1859 for drilling the first commercial oil well in the U.S., producing wells in Ohio’s Washington County near Marietta came online soon thereafter. By 1896 Ohio reached its peak yearly production, 24 million barrels from about 6,000 producing oil wells, mostly from the rich Lima-Findley oil field. Natural gas went into commercial production in Ohio in 1884.

Ohio’s oil and gas industry was all but dead when fracking, first used in the state in the early 1950s, dramatically increased the amount of recoverable oil and gas from our Clinton sandstone and Devonian shale. Today, roughly 64,000 wells pump out 5 million barrels of crude oil per year, according to state figures. But statewide natural gas production provides more than twice as much energy, with 88 billion cubic feet of natural gas being produced annually.

Though a 60-year-old technology that is used in 90 percent of all oil and gas wells drilled today, fracking is increasingly used to extract oil and gas deposited in deep underground shale using modern-day horizontal drilling, where wells are drilled at an angle to access more source rock. Most oil and gas exploration is taking place in the eastern part of the state, located in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations that have begun to yield huge amounts of natural gas, and large companies like Chevron and Chesapeake Energy, one of the largest gas producers in the nation, have started leasing land.

So what are the problems with fracking? Opponents worry that the chemicals used to frack will contaminate underground aquifers. They also cite excessive water use—since four to nine million gallons of water are injected each time a well is fracked—and wastewater pollution and air pollution from open air wastewater pits. To emphasize the dangers, opponents point to a case in Bainbridge Township in Northeast Ohio where a house exploded in 2007 when natural gas from a gas well 1,000 feet away migrated into the home due to over pressurization of the well’s surface casing, investigators determined.

But geologists at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mineral Resources Management, which oversees fossil fuel drilling and fracking, maintain that no groundwater contamination has taken place in any of the 80,000 fracked wells in Ohio, and that strict state regulations mandate cement casing within a well to isolate underground aquifers from the fracking taking place several thousand feet below them. Also required are proper wastewater disposal and site remediation when wells stops producing.

Are the potential threats from fracking in oil and natural gas producing states greater than the impact of potential shortages and spiking prices in Ohio and across the nation? What if Ohio could produce a lot more of its own oil and natural gas to help maintain stable prices for its own households, businesses and manufacturing plants, while the nation builds a wind, solar and geothermal infrastructure—a decades-long undertaking that will require lots of fossil fuel?

What if, with beefed up production, more crude oil could be shipped from our communities to the state’s four refineries to help substitute for lower output elsewhere as worldwide oil production heads into permanent decline? What if more locally-produced natural gas could be pumped directly into local utility pipelines to heat homes and businesses? Still, with Ohioans consuming nearly 50 times as much petroleum as the state produces each year and 8,000 times the natural gas, we could never provide for our own energy needs without huge cuts in consumption.

While the possibility of an underground gas explosion may indeed frighten us, as well as the prospect of plummeting worldwide oil production, an even more earth-shaking realization should be our dangerous dependence upon these ancient, underground and ultimately finite fossil fuels.

Click here for other EarthWISE Columns by Megan Quinn Bachman

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