Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources issues permits for oil and gas wells, and regulates the industry. State laws override municipal laws and block locals from restricting drilling.
So municipalities are after other options.
The broadest effort has involved passing resolutions urging the Ohio General Assembly and Gov. John Kasich to institute a moratorium on wells that use a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. North Canton’s City Council last week approved a resolution that will go to Columbus.
Alliance City Council is trying a different approach with an ordinance to ban horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing on or under any city-owned land.
Some local officials also hope a Summit County Common Pleas Court ruling Wednesday can put some teeth into efforts to restrict drilling.
Local officials repeatedly say they are worried the combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing can damage or even destroy water aquifers and reservoirs in their communities.
“We have such good water under us. … We don’t want to hurt that,” Hartville mayor Edsel Tucker said, explaining why his village government is set to battle drilling.
WHY THE DEBATE?
Stark County is home to more than 3,000 wells producing natural gas and oil. But those are traditional wells reaching porous sandstone formations about 4,000 feet deep.
Since last summer, energy companies have moved into Stark and neighboring counties with the hope of exploiting shale formations sandwiched between the sandstone. Natural gas — and sometimes oil — is trapped within the rock.
In Ohio, companies are exploring the Utica Shale, which is more than 5,000 feet deep. They hope to find natural gas, as well as wet gas — containing various hydrocarbons — and oil.
Companies reach the shale with horizontal drilling, which bores through the rock sometimes up to a mile away from the vertical bore hole.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, takes place after the horizontal well is drilled. A slurry of water, sand and chemicals — upwards to 5 million gallons — is forced into the well. The slurry cracks the rock and releases the gas and oil.
Chesapeake Energy has drilled one horizontal well and is working on a second in Carroll County, although fracking hasn’t been done.
The processes have been used in Texas and Colorado, and more recently in parts of Pennsylvania. But there have been accidents and instances when water wells have been damaged.
Environmentalists cite the accidents and argue that hydraulic fracturing caused the problems. Companies counter that hydraulic fracturing has been used for years, adding that many of Stark County’s existing wells likely were fracked at least once or more.
Concerns about horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have spurred the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to conduct a review. Initial reports won’t be completed until 2012.
Drilling opponents cite the EPA review when asking for a moratorium. So far, New York legislators have blocked horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in that state, while environmentalists are calling for moratoriums in other states or nationwide.
They argue that more information is needed to understand what happens after shale is fracked. The hope is that the EPA’s research will provide answers.
North Canton’s resolution asking Ohio officials to wait until the EPA review is completed follows similar action by Canton and Plain Township. The resolution cites “concerns over the adverse effects and possible irreversible damage to the city’s water systems and supplies that pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare of future generations.”
Councilman Jeff Davies, Ward 3, who introduced the resolution, said he’s not opposed to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, but he believes a moratorium might be good. “It’s prudent to take a little time. The gas will still be there.”
While communities and environmental groups bombard Columbus with drilling moratorium requests, there hasn’t been much response.
Plain Township trustee Louis P. Giavasis, who has been vocal in the local moratorium campaign, said he’s not surprised by the lack of a response. “Even if something would get passed (by the General Assembly), I don’t think the governor will sign it.”
Ohio Rep. Mark Okey, D-Carrollton, concurred with Giavasis’ assessment. The representative hopes to see the Ohio House strengthen the state’s existing drilling regulations. A new proposal is pending with the House’s Agriculture and Natural Resources committee.
Mark Okey said he’s not opposed to drilling, but he has concerns. During budget hearings last week, he offered an amendment to limit drilling in state parks, nature preserves and wildlife areas. It’s aimed at Gov. Kasich’s proposal to open all public lands for drilling and was tabled with the vote falling along party lines.
“It should not have been part of the budget,” Mark Okey said of Kasich’s proposal.
As for the rush to drill in Ohio, Mark Okey suggests it could slow down and cites the pending House bill. “We have one chance to get this right before we drill 10,000 wells in this state,” he said.
Council members in Alliance still are researching a proposal to block drilling on and under city-owned land.
Councilman Steve Okey, at-large, said the city owns land around Deer Creek and Walborn reservoirs, which supply the city’s water system. He wants to protect the reservoirs.
“As the owner of the property, we can decide if we want (drilling) to take place on our own property,” councilman Steve Okey said. “If I’m going to err, I want to err on the side of caution.”
Hartville officials have taken note of the Alliance proposal, Mayor Tucker said. No official action has been taken, but Tucker and the council have agreed to keep drilling off village property when they can.
There already are two vertical wells in Hartville’s industrial park paying the village a small royalty. The village has been asked about leasing more land, but rebuffed the offers.
“It’s really sad that we don’t have a right to stop them from drilling anywhere they want to drill,” Tucker said.
A ZONING ISSUE
Officials in Monroe Falls, however, stopped two wells from going in by demanding the driller, Beck Energy, obtain zoning permits and performance bonds required for construction projects. The action was upheld by Common Pleas Judge Mary Margaret Rowlands.
Another court will decide if Rowlands has ruled properly. David Beck, a Plain Township resident and Beck Energy owner, said he plans to appeal.
Beck wants to drill a vertical well into the Clinton Sandstone on private land in Monroe Falls. “This is like the thousands of other wells drilled in Ohio,” he said.
When drilling began in March, Monroe Falls officials sought court orders to block the work. They demanded Beck follow local rules, while he argued the state permit trumped them. Beck contends his rights as a business are being violated because the city doesn’t like the state regulations that he’s following.
Giavasis hopes Monroe Falls wins the battle. The court ruling indicates that municipalities might have a say on drilling. “We should have the right to say how this is going to be done,” he said.
Possible water well damage is a big concern, but there are others, Giavasis said. Noise from machinery and increased truck traffic has been cited as problems in Pennsylvania, he said.
He’s concerned a horizontal well pad, which covers five acres, will go in close to a residential area. “If that happens, peoples’ lives are going to be turned upside down,” Giavasis said.