Geology of fracking remains unclear in the Valley

By Brandon Klein


There’s not enough geological data to say definitively that Mahoning and Trumbull counties are susceptible to earthquakes, a seismologist said.

There are about 25 shale wells in Mahoning and Trumbull counties along with 19 active injection wells. Earthquakes have been attributed to two injection wells and one hydraulic- fracturing site.

“Three cases is not quite enough to tell us about the geology there [in the Mahoning Valley],” said Mike Brudzinski, a professor of seismology at Miami University. “It’s a little too early to say that there’s a trend here.”

Brudzinski said though it’s clear that the activity at each site induced earthquakes, it’s unclear whether the faults are exclusive to the area.

Operators each may have simply chosen an “unlucky location,” he said.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, along with energy companies and researchers, are conducting extensive monitoring and analysis, Brudzinski said.

ODNR focuses on selected locations prone to seismic occurrences, said Matt Eiselstein, a spokesman for the agency. The department uses the Ohio Seismic Network that has more than 25 seismometers, which detect earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.0 or higher. ODNR’s division of oil and gas resources management receives real-time data from seismic monitors placed at the fracking- or injection- well sites to detect earthquakes with a magnitude of 1.0 or higher. Energy companies may be required to conduct their own seismic monitoring as well, Eiselstein said.

There are 15 seismic monitors in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, he added.

“We’ve got more capability and equipment,” Eiselstein said.

Additionally, researchers conduct “earthquake fingerprinting,” which determines trends by looking at the past data of a fracking or an injection well site whenever a new event occurs, Brudzinski said. That data is provided to the ODNR.

Thomas Serenko, chief of ODNR’s division of geological survey, said it reviews permits from energy companies before making the recommendations to the oil and gas division. The survey recently hired two seismologists, he added.

Eiselstein said other data ODNR uses includes geological maps of bedrock, underground safe drinking water, abandoned mines and known faults.

Brudzinski said the fault maps are limited, however.

“It’s a problem when you don’t know where the [unknown] faults are,” Brudzinski said. “We need to understand what’s going on in the [Precambrian] basement.”

The Precambrian formation is a nearly impermeable rock formation about 9,600 feet underground.

There are some methods to mapping out the geology but they are expensive. Geophysical companies gather seismic reflection data by using equipment to send a charge into the earth and record the reflected energy from the rock layers. The information is then processed digitally producing either a 2-D or-3-D image of the geology.

Trade secrets

The oil and gas industry has two scenarios to obtain data: Drillers can hire geophysical companies to conduct a survey and purchase the rights to the information. Or geophysical companies can conduct an unsolicited survey of an area of interest and sell that information to the companies from the industries — but maintain the rights to that information.

In either case, the oil and gas companies are not mandated by law to provide the data to the ODNR when applying for a permit to drill or to officials in the community that’s going to be drilled. That’s because the data has commercial value and is therefore considered proprietary information or trade secrets.

There has been no seismic reflection data released to the ODNR for Mahoning County because it’s not public record, Serenko said.

Brudzinski said its uncertain whether the data could help researchers and regulators. There’s little chance of making such information public record because such a law would have no chance of passing the current Ohio Legislature, said state Rep. Robert Hagan of Youngstown, D-59th.

“You’re not going to hear anything on this from the Legislature,” Hagan said, maintaining that the legislature is controlled by the oil and gas industry.

Other states

The regulations for fracking should have been left to the Environmental Protection Agency instead of the ODNR, Hagan said. Ohio is among 33 states that have their own program to oversee fracking operations. There are 10 states that allow the EPA to regulate, including Pennsylvania. The remaining seven states have a state program that works in conjunction with the EPA.

Some states, such as Oklahoma, take different approaches to the seismic activity issue. Oklahoma receives its share of earthquakes, but seismic activity has increased beyond normal levels, which has been linked to disposal wells, said Matt Skinner, a spokesman for Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which regulates the permits for drilling.

Randy Keller, director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, said the oil and gas industry provides the OGS with fault location data, which is mostly determined by the number of wells drilled in that area, he said. Essentially, the more wells drilled in a particular area the more likely the location of a fault is known.

“We receive only a modest amount of seismic reflection data,” Keller added.

Additionally, Oklahoma is among the states that implemented a traffic-light system, recommended by the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. The traffic- light system allows the OCC to accept, deny, or apply restrictions with permits to place disposable wells, Skinner said. With a “red light,” permit requests are usually denied for companies that want to drill within two miles of a fault that has known seismic activity. Within six miles of a known fault, the OCC can issue a “yellow light” that applies restrictions to the volume and pressure of drilling in the area. A “green light” allows companies to drill without any restraints unless seismic activity is detected.

Ohio does not employ a traffic-light system but seismic monitors are now placed before any drilling is commenced and continue to be monitored during those operations, said Richard Simmers, the chief of the Oil and Gas Division.

However, such changes came after the Valley experienced a series of minor to moderate earthquakes.

Valley quakes

The Northstar 1 injection well on Ohio Works Drive in Youngstown closed after a magnitude-4.0 earthquake on New Year’s Eve in 2011. A moratorium within a 7-mile radius of the well prohibited drilling in that vicinity.

In April, regulators and geologists identified hydraulic fracturing as a probable trigger for a series of earthquakes that hit Poland Township near a Hilcorp Energy Co. fracking operation at the Carbon Limestone Landfill. After that incident, ODNR started requiring companies seeking horizontal drilling permits within three miles of known faults or in the vicinity of seismic events greater than a 2.0 magnitude to install seismic monitors. If the monitors detect quakes with a magnitude of more than 1.0, drilling and related activities would have to stop while the site is investigated.

Those changes led to two injection wells owned by the American Water Management Services just north of Niles to be shut down after a 2.1 earthquake was detected Aug. 31 leading to an ODNR investigation. The shallower of the two wells was reopened Sept. 19.

“When a seismic event is detected, ODNR evaluates a number of factors including proximity to oil and gas operations, and may suspend operations to allow adequate time to fully evaluate the cause,” Eiselstein said.

Additionally, Brudzinski said members between the “science community and the energy industry are talking about potential partnerships” that could lead to greater exchange of geological data.

Overall, Serenko noted that it would benefit Ohio to work with the oil and gas industry rather than be confrontational.

“We’re just grateful for whatever data we can get,” he said.

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