Drilling for oil and natural gas isn’t a risk-free activity, a review of contamination complaints reveals. Still, data from four states, among them Ohio, recently examined by the Associated Press suggest that the drilling boom under way rarely affects well water, a major concern voiced by environmentalists who oppose increased drilling.
Records also were examined from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Texas. Pennsylvania had the most number of confirmed contamination cases, 106. But more than 5,000 new wells have been drilled there since 2005. Fewer than 2 percent have caused a problem.
In Ohio, the Department of Natural Resources found six cases of well contamination from 2010 through mid-October. None involved the more than 500 new wells that use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling to release oil and gas from deep shale formations.
Five of the Ohio cases involved localized, temporary problems from vertical-only wells, an old technology. One case stemmed from an abandoned, or orphaned, well, put in before regulation of concrete casing construction to prevent seepage. One of the cases involved a buried waste tank, no longer allowed under Ohio law. In two instances, the contaminated wells were used only for agricultural purposes.
That doesn’t mean there is an absence of challenges. Precautions are necessary, the state wisely requiring oil and gas drillers to test neighbors’ water wells within 1,500 feet to detect any gas or other contaminants naturally present. Also worth emphasizing again is the large scale of hydraulic fracturing. State officials recently proposed allowing football-field size ponds to hold waste water from drilling until it can be recycled or treated. Tight regulation will be essential.
The state Department of Natural Resources must continue to build a strong regulatory framework covering all aspects of drilling, preventing accidents and releases from horizontal wells, which use millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, a far more complex operation than the old vertical wells.