OH Drilling Rules Should Prevent Quakes

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 @ 04:03 PM gHale

A dozen earthquakes in northeastern Ohio were almost certainly the result of injection of gas-drilling wastewater into the earth, state regulators said and drillers will now face tougher scrutiny.

Among the new regulations is well operators must submit more comprehensive geological data when requesting a drill site, and the chemical makeup of all drilling wastewater must undergo electronic tracking.

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The tough new brine injection regulations come into play because of the state Department of Natural Resources’ report on the well in Youngstown, which it said had “a number of coincidental circumstances.”

For one, investigators said, the well began operations just three months ahead of the first quake.

They also noted the seismic activity clustered around the well bore, and reported they found a fault in the Precambrian basement rock where they were injecting water.

“Geologists believe it is very difficult for all conditions to be met to induce seismic events,” the report said. “In fact, all the evidence indicates that properly located … injection wells will not cause earthquakes.”

Northeastern Ohio and large parts of adjacent states sit atop the Marcellus Shale geological formation, which contains vast reserves of natural gas that energy companies are rushing to drill using a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

That process involves freeing the gas by injecting water into the earth, but when companies are done with the water, they need to dispose it. Municipal water treatment plants can not remove some of the contaminants found in the wastewater, including radioactive elements. One common practice is to re-inject it into the ground, a practice banned in some states.

Past earthquakes linked to energy exploration and production, including from injections of enormous amounts of drilling wastewater or injections of water for geothermal power, experts said.

They point to recent earthquakes in the magnitude 3 and 4 range — not big enough to cause much damage, but big enough to be felt — in Arkansas, Texas, California, England, Germany and Switzerland. And in the 1960s, two Denver quakes in the 5.0 range traced to deep injection of wastewater.

The improper placement of the Youngstown well stemmed in part from inadequate geological data available to regulators, the Ohio report states. New rules would require a complete roll of geophysical logs to go to the state.

“These logs were not available to inform regulators of the possible issues in geologic formations prior to well operation,” the document said.

Requiring well operators to submit more comprehensive geologic data is just one of the added regulations the department will either impose immediately or pursue through legislative or rule changes.

Among other changes:
• There will be a ban of any future injection into Precambrian rock; and they will have to plug any existing wells penetrating the formation.
• The state will require state-of-the-art pressure and volume monitoring, including automatic shut-off systems.
• There will be a requirement for electronic tracking systems that identify the makeup of all drilling wastewater fluids entering the state.

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