Environmental regulators in Ohio believe earthquakes felt until the end of last year were likely the direct result of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) drilling for natural gas and oil in the state.
According to a Reuters report, Ohio’s Dept. of Natural Resources is blaming a series of 11 earthquakes near the Youngstown area on disposal wells dug to “bury” wastewater from fracking wells in the state. This, the agency says, eventually led to a relatively large 4.0 tremor felt on Dec. 31 last year in an area not known for any seismic activity. That earthquake triggered more than 4,000 calls to 9-1-1 and other emergency officials in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and parts of Canada.
Ohio is the latest state to deal with unexpected earthquakes after allowing fracking drillers to open explorations wells. Arkansas, West Virginia, and California are just a few other states which have seen a recent uptick in earthquakes that have left regulators and state officials scratching their heads to determine the cause. They all happen to be states which allow the disposal of fracking wastewater into underground disposal wells.
States allowing fracking drilling have debated the best way to handle the wastewater generated from the fracking process, typically hundreds of thousands of gallons of fluid from one well. Some states require drillers to collect and store the wastewater on site before transporting it to water treatment facilities to remove the toxic qualities of it. In other states, like Ohio, the waste water is shot deep underground into specially dug wells.
In Ohio, DNR officials believe the high-pressure injections deep into underground wells have disrupted base rock layers miles below the surface. If these injections are too deep, they can reach fault lines and eventually cause an earthquake. Fracking wastewater contains dangerous toxins and has a briny chemistry that is believed to be “rubbing” underground rock, slowly wearing them away, and causing that underground rock to move.
DNR believes a ban on drilling at the Precambrian basement rock level nearly 9,000 feet below the surface will allay most of the seismic activity being blamed on fracking. Most of the 200 or more fracking wells dug in Ohio are for the purpose of disposing wastewater. Reuters reports that more than 200 million gallons of fracking wastewater have been dumped into underground disposal wells in Ohio since 1983.
The agency stopped just short of blaming the earthquakes directly on fracking drilling but did state in a report last week that “coincidental circumstances” led to its conclusion and recommendations to ban drilling at certain underground depths. The epicenters of the nearly dozen earthquakes in the state were located within one mile of a fracking disposal site.
Ohio also accepts fracking wastewater from other states – about half of that 200 million gallons already accepted – but its governor announced last week that it would increase the taxes on any out-of-state imports of fracking wastewater to be disposed of in injection wells there.