COLUMBUS - A citizens group said Wednesday it isn't taking the word of state regulators that new permitting guidelines will protect public health after earthquakes in northeast Ohio were linked to the gas drilling method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Members of Youngstown-based Frackfree Mahoning Valley said the science behind the finding is a mystery, and new permit conditions the state is imposing in response do nothing to prevent future quakes.
"They're not going to stop any earthquakes, they're just going to pause activity when one is felt," said Youngstown State University geologist Ray Beiersdorfer, who's affiliated with the group.
A state investigation of five small tremors last month in the Youngstown area, in the Appalachian foothills, found the injection of sand and water that accompanies fracking in the Utica Shale may have increased pressure on a small, unknown fault. The link has been classified as "probable."
The state placed a moratorium on drilling activity at the site near the epicenter of the quakes, while allowing five existing wells to continue production.
Beiersdorfer said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources should have produced a scientific report to accompany a geologist's conclusion linking Utica Shale fracking to earthquakes for the first time. Fully understanding the finding could help protect Ohioans from future fracking-related earthquakes, he said.
While earlier studies had linked earthquakes in the same region to deep-injection wells used for disposal of fracking wastewater, this marked the first time tremors in the region have been tied directly to fracking. The five seismic events in March couldn't be easily felt by people.
Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that oversees drilling, said all the data used by scientists is being made available through public records requests. He said issuing a report would have considerably delayed getting the information to the public.
"After the last Youngstown events, we were routinely criticized by many groups for taking too long to make public our findings of our investigation," he said. "So this time, in the interest of transparency and timeliness, we felt, 'OK, let's announce what we know.'"
The new permit conditions - which carry less force than rules or regulations - require all new drilling sites within 3 miles of a known fault or seismic activity of 2.0 magnitude or higher to install sensitive seismic-monitoring equipment to get a state drilling permit. Monitoring results will be directly available to regulators so the state isn't reliant on drilling operators providing the data voluntarily.
If seismic activity of 1.0 magnitude or greater is felt, drilling will be paused for evaluation. If a link is found, the operation will be halted.
Shawn Bennett, a spokesman for the industry group Energy In Depth, said the threshold Ohio has set is lower than in other places where earthquakes have been detected, such as British Columbia.
He said oil and gas drillers are motivated by the bottom line to follow rules, regulations and permit conditions.