After a previously undiscovered fault line under a deep injection well in Youngstown triggered a series of earthquakes, geologists offered convincing evidence that drilling wastes had lubricated the rock layers. The injection well was shut down, but state regulators reacted wisely by issuing tough new rules on the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas well drilling.
The caution was justified because Ohio is on the verge of an oil and gas boom, each well generating millions of gallons of wastewater, the product of hydraulic fracturing. The drilling method uses sand and toxic chemicals mixed with water to break up shale formations. With 176 injection wells across the state ready to dispose of the waste, the Youngstown area earthquakes posed a whole new regulatory issue with the preferred method to avoid contaminating the environment.
This week, John Kasich signed an executive order to make sure the new rules, now under review, will be applied immediately to 24 pending applications for permits to drill injection wells. Without the order, the permitting process would have proceeded under less stringent requirements. The order also gives the state Department of Natural Resources the power to impose the new rules on the existing injection wells.
The governor’s order means that the Department of Natural Resources will have much tighter control by giving it the power to require those drilling and operating injection wells to submit to extensive testing to detect fault lines and monitor seismic activity, well pressure and volume, among other factors. The chief of the department’s Oil and Gas Division has the authority to halt injections and plug a well.
As with other aspects of hydraulic fracturing, the challenge is to maintain the right balance between the need to generate a supply of cheaper, cleaner energy and to protect the environment and human health from a drilling method in which one serious mistake can unleash millions of gallons of contaminated water, or, in the case of injection wells, trigger widespread earthquakes.