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Ohio Utica Shale

Biologists find little public data on drilling spills, accidents

By Bob Downing Published: August 4, 2014

From a Friday press release:

Shale gas production in the United States has increased by more than 700% since 2007, yet the effects of this industry on nature and wildlife are not well understood. In a study to be published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment on August 1, a group of leading conservation biologists found that determining the environmental impact of chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failure, and other accidents is a top research priority.


A major impediment to this research, however, is the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal, and fracturing fluids. Of the 24 US states with active shale gas reservoirs, only five maintain public records of spills and accidents.


“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the best sources of publicly available information on spills of fracturing fluid, wastewater, and other contaminants. Even so, gas companies failed to reportover one third of spills in the last year,” says Sara Souther, a researcher at University of Wisconsin - Madison. “How many more spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?” asks Dr. Souther.


Souther continues, “Shale development companies were cited 22 times for discharging industrial waste into Pennsylvanian waterways in 2013. In these cases, we know that fracturing waste entered streams and rivers, but we don’t know where, when, or how much waste was discharged. We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals”.


The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances, is often unknown. The authors reviewed chemical disclosure statements for 150 wells in three top gas-producing states and found that, on average, 2 out of 3 wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical.


“Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” says Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”


The authors hope that this study will focus limited resources on key questions. With shale production projected to increase exponentially over the next 30 years, the authors cite the need for cooperation among scientists, industry representatives, and policymakers to minimize damage to the natural world. One of the greatest threats to animal and plant-life identified in the study is the cumulative impact of rapid, widespread shale development, with each individual well contributing collectively to air, water, noise, and light pollution.


“If you look down on a heavily fracked landscape, you see a maze of access roads and pipelines connecting wells and creating islands out of what was, in some cases, continuous habitat”, says Dr. Souther. “What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?”


“The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts,” notes Morgan Tingley, a researcher from University of Connecticut. “We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts.”


Photography courtesy of EcoFlight (

Caption: Proliferation of natural gas wells in the Jonah Field, Wyoming, USA.


Author affiliations


Sara Souther

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Department of Botany, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, WI

Assistant Professor, Department of Biology & Environmental Science, West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon, WV


On twitter: @SaraSouther



Morgan W Tingley

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ

Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT


On twitter: @mwtingley



ViorelD Popescu

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Earth to Ocean Research Group, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada & Centre for Environmental Research, University of Bucharest, Bucharest, Romania




David TS Hayman

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Department of Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO; Department of Biology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL; current address: mEpiLab, Infectious Disease research Centre (IDReC), Hopkirk Research Institute, Institute of Veterinary, Animal and Biomedical Sciences, Massey University, PalmerstonNorth, Manawatu, New Zealand



Maureen E Ryan

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA



Tabitha A Graves

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, CO



Brett Hartl

Policy Committee Member, Society for Conservation Biology, Washington, DC


Kimberly Terrell

David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow, Center for Species Survival, Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, Front Royal, VA


On twitter: @snototters






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Utica and Marcellus shale web sites

Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management State agency Web site.

ODNR Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. State drilling permits. List is updated weekly.

ODNR Division of Geological Survey.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

Ohio State University Extension.

Ohio Farm Bureau.

Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a Granville-based group that represents 1,500 Ohio energy-related companies.

Ohio Oil & Gas Energy Education Program.

Energy In Depth, a trade group.

Marcellus and Utica Shale Resource Center by Ohio law firm Bricker & Eckler.

Utica Shale, a compilation of Utica shale activities.

Landman Report Card, a site that looks at companies involved in gas and oil leases.FracFocus, a compilation of chemicals used in fracking individual wells as reported voluntarily by some drillers.

Chesapeake Energy Corp,the Oklahoma-based firm is the No. 1 driller in Ohio.

Rig Count Interactive Map by Baker Hughes, an energy services company.

Shale Sheet Fracking, a Youngstown Vindicator blog.

National Geographic's The Great Shale Rush.

The Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide eco-group based in Columbus.

Buckeye Forest Council.

Earthjustice, a national eco-group.

Stop Fracking Ohio.

People's Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio, a grass-roots group in Northeast Ohio.

Concerned Citizens of Medina County, a grass-roots group.

No Frack Ohio, a Columbus-based grass-roots group.

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat by ProPublica, an online journalism site.

Penn State Marcellus Center.

Pipeline, blog from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Marcellus shale drilling.

Allegheny Front, environmental public radio for Western Pennsylvania.