Drilling for oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids in Ohio’s Utica shale formations holds much promise for the state, in cheaper energy and job growth. The challenge is to extract the valuable resources in a safe and responsible way, recognizing the long-term environmental and health consequences of accidents involving toxic chemicals, heavy metals and radiation.
Thus, it is most appropriate that the state Department of Natural Resources soon will release rules that would tighten its oversight of this heavy industrial activity. The rule-making process is heading in the right direction, taking a detailed and comprehensive approach, alert to the catastrophic consequences of even a single spill.
It is important that the new rules receive a full airing before implementation. The proposals cover everything from the construction of drilling pads to the recycling of millions of gallons of waste water produced by hydraulic fracturing of shale. Although the risks from drilling cannot be reduced to zero, detailed rules can greatly reduce the chances of accidents.
Environmental groups are examining carefully the department’s proposals, especially one that would allow ponds the size of a football field to hold waste water until it can be recycled or treated. For the most part, Ohio has relied on injection wells for disposal. As with other aspects of regulating drilling, the key is a “cradle to grave” approach that covers how ponds are constructed, monitored and reclaimed. Leaking liners or overflows caused by storms could result too easily in widespread contamination.
Fortunately, the Department of Natural Resources is planning to increase its work force in the Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management, adding 40 positions to the current 110 staff members as part of implementing the new rules. The most detailed regulations will mean little without an adequate number of inspectors and engineers to enforce them.
Moving forward, any legislation to increase the state’s severance taxes should divert revenue to building up the regulatory framework as a first priority. While drillers stand to make money from extracting one-time resources, Ohio must live with the consequences forever.