Marietta Times LTE Distorts Reality of Natural Gas Production in Ohio

Today, the Marietta Times published a letter from Richard A. Wittberg, PhD., one in which Mr. Wittberg takes issue with a recent Op-Ed from our friend Dr. Robert Chase of Marietta College. The author identifies himself as a concerned public health official with some “specific points” against  hydraulic fracturing. Certainly, in his role it is understandable Mr. Wittberg would seek to investigate any and all potential impacts any sort of development might have on the public.

While EID-Ohio applauds Mr. Wittberg’s service as a health official, and his previous work on behalf of the environment,  it is also important to make note of some of his other roles outside of his day job in West Virginia – namely as a member of the Board of Directors of Ohio Citizen Action, an organization with a history of opposition energy development.

In it’s resource guide on hydraulic fracturing, Ohio Citizen Action cites the widely debunked movie Gasland as it’s top reference for all things related to hydraulic fracturing. Also on their go-to list, NEOGAP, an activist group with a history of vocal opposition to the energy industry as a whole.

These are hardly objective sources for information. As a result of relying on these sources, Mr. Wittberg’s letter quickly devolves into a speculative, misinformed,  anti-industry piece, more reflective of an activist than a concerned official.

EID Ohio had a gander at Mr. Wittberg’s letter, and took the time to go point by point and clarify the myths and realities of his response to Dr. Chase’s article, Myths and Realities of Horizontal Drilling and Frac(k)ing in Ohio: 

Myth: “Both Ohio and West Virginia are scrambling to catch up with how to regulate this industry. Adequate regulations are not in place yet.” (“Claim that fracking is safe is misleading,”11/14/11)

Reality: With a long history of oil and gas production, and a recent, massive update of state oil & gas law, Ohio has been recognized by outside peer review groups as having a well-managed regulatory program as it relates specifically to hydraulic fracturing.  Actually, Ohio oil and gas regulations are regarded as some of the most stringent in the nation:

  • In 2010, Governor Ted Strickland signed Senate Bill 165 into law. The bill, passed through the state house and senate with bi-partisan support, was a comprehensive update to Ohio’s existing regulations in Ohio Revised Code 1509. It was the largest overhaul of oil and gas law in more than two decades, designed to address  public concerns as well as new technologies.
  • In 2011, The State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) conducted a peer review of Ohio’s regulations and practices in regards to hydraulic fracturing. STRONGER is a workgroup consisting of state regulatory agencies, environmental organizations and industry groups.
  • STRONGER concluded that the Ohio program is “well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives” (STRONGER Report, January 2011).

In an effort to help our readers understand the regulatory landscape facing natural gas producers in Ohio, each step of the process is regulated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and/or the Ohio EPA,  we provide the below  illustration from the Ohio EPA which summarizes the regulatory authority over oil & gas production activities:

Summary of ODNR and Ohio EPA
Regulatory Authority Over Oil/Gas
Drilling and Production Activities

Ohio Department of Natural Resources

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency

Drilling in
shale deposits
Issues permits for drilling oil/gas wells in Ohio.Sets requirements for proper location, design and construction requirements for wells.Inspects and oversees drilling activity.Requires controls and procedures to prevent discharges and releases.Requires that wells no longer used for production are properly plugged.Requires registration for facility owners with the capacity to withdraw water at a quantity greater than 100,000 gallons per day. Requires drillers obtain authorization for construction activity where there is an impact to a wetland, stream, river or other water of the state.Requires drillers obtain an air permit-to-install and operate (PTIO) for units or activities that have emissions of air pollutants.
Wastewater
and drill cutting management
at drill sites
Sets design requirements for on-site pits/lagoons used to store drill cuttings and brine/flowback water.Requires proper closure of on-site pits/lagoons after drilling is completed.Sets standards for managing drill cuttings and sediments left on-site. Requires proper management of solid wastes shipped off-site for disposal.
Brine/flowback
water disposal
Regulates the disposal of brine and oversees operation of Class II wells used to inject oil/gas-related waste fluids.Reviews specifications and issues permits for Class II wells.Sets design/construction requirements for Class II underground injection wells.Responds to questions/concerns from citizens regarding safety of drinking water from private wells from oil/natural gas drilling.
Brine/flowback
water hauling
Registers transporters hauling brine and oil/gas drilling-related wastewater in Ohio.
Pumping water to the drill site from a public water supply system Requires proper containment devices at the point of connection to protect the public water system.

Myth: “hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Clean Water Act.  Drillers claims that what they put down the well is 99.5 percent water and sand, but the last 0.5 percent is highly toxic and dangerous in our water supply.” (“Claim that fracking is safe is misleading,” 11/14/11) 

Reality: It is important to understand that “frac fluid”  is comprised of 99.5% water and sand. The remaining additives – highly diluted and less than 1% – are compounds found in commonly used household items. One of the more frequently used additives here in Ohio is guar gum, a complex carbohydrate used as a thickener for daily products like yogurt and ice cream.

  • Here again, Mr. Wittberg references a danger to our water supply, ignoring the fact that in the In the past 60 years, there has been no confirmed case of water contamination caused as a result of the hydraulic fracturing process.
  • In 2004, the EPA released the findings of a five-year investigation on hydraulic fracturing commissioned under the Clinton Administration, and concluded there was no record of drinking water contamination as a result of the fracturing process:

National Study Final Report, June 2004:

“EPA has concluded that additional or further study is not warranted at this time. In making this decision, EPA reviewed more than 200 peer-reviewed publications, other research, and public comments.  The Agency has concluded that the injection of hydraulic fracturing fluids into (CBM) wells poses minimal threat to USDWs.” (June, 2004)

“In its review of incidents of drinking water well contamination believed to be associated with hydraulic fracturing, EPA found no confirmed cases that are linked to fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells or subsequent underground movement of fracturing fluids.  Further, although thousands of CBM wells are fractured annually, EPA did not find confirmed evidence that drinking water wells have been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing fluid injection into CBM wells.”  (June, 2004)

*(USDWs- underground sources of drinking water)

Carol Browner, EPA Administrator under President Bill Clinton, stated in 1995  there is “no evidence” that hydraulic fracturing has resulted in drinking water contamination or endangerment. This was followed by current EPA Director Lisa Jackson who also affirmed the safety of hydraulic fracturing, when she said during congressional testimony: “I’m not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water,” (May, 2011).

As far as the claim that hydraulic fracturing is exempt from the Clean Water Act, Mr. Wittberg appears again to be getting his oft repeated, factually inaccurate, talking points from Josh Fox and Gasland:

GasLand myth: “What I didn’t know was that the 2005 energy bill pushed through Congress by Dick Cheney exempts the oil and natural gas industries from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act…and about a dozen other environmental regulations.” (6:05).

Actual truth:  What occurred in 2005 was anything but an exemption.  In 1997, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reached a decision in a case, LEAF v. EPA, which over-ruled U.S. EPA’s correct determination that hydraulic fracturing was not covered under the class II underground injection program (it hadn’t been covered since the program’s inception).  In over-ruling the EPA, the court’s decision temporarily altered the purpose, and intent of, the class II underground injection program and as a result hydraulic fracturing and other programs were affected.  Seeing this incorrect judicial determination, Congress clarified their original intent in the 2005 energy bill which was supported by nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Senate, including then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. In the U.S. House, 75 Democrats joined 200 Republicans in supporting the final bill.

Myth(s):  “I believe Dr. Chase is correct that leaks from the well casings that contaminate the groundwater are rare now due to improvements in the technology. However…

a)   The plastic lined ponds in which this water is stored are certainly not proof against leaks, and I know of several that are leaking. This is a potential and likely source of groundwater contamination.

Reality: First of all most producers in Ohio are using closed loop systems (we cover this further below).  For example, the largest producer in Ohio, Chesapeake Energy, employs closed loop systems (see page 13) in their operations.  As for what Dr. Wittberg reportedly witnessed, I hope he reported these supposed leaks.  I am sure both the company and ODNR would like to know where these leaks are taking place so they can repair and clean up these areas.  ODNR will respond to any citizen complaint in 24 hours.  In fact, if this claim is true, I would advise Dr. Wittberg to read Ohio Revised Code 1509.22. If ODNR finds any of the author’s statements to be true they have the ability to make the operator cease operations and fix the problem immediately.

b)    I also know of several of these ponds built on excessive slopes whose dikes have failed, spilling their contents down the sides of the hill (killing most of the vegetation) and contaminating the stream at the bottom.” (“Claim that fracking is safe is misleading,” 11/14/11)

Reality: Unlike , Ohio is not a mountainous state and our regulations are quite a bit different.  First and foremost the use of any holding ponds is illegal in Ohio except for in very temporary circumstances where ODNR regulates the construction and maintenance of any ponds used for freshwater or flowback.  In fact, ORC Section 1509.72  discusses the time required by law to close pits used for temporary storage of produced waters – which is 3 months for urban, 6 months for all other areas.

However, all that being said.  In Ohio, most producers are using a closed loop system to manage materials and recycle their flowback water.  Closed loop systems directly channel all drilling wastes (muds, water, etc) to steel containers for recycling and/or disposal.  This results in these materials never having an opportunity to come in contact with the environment.  In fact, in a review (featured in the above link) the Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project ( a known industry critic) commended these systems for their beneficial impacts when employed.  So in a sense we agree, what happens in West Virginia should stay in West Virginia.

Myth: “Ohio and West Virginia are littered with old oil and gas wells. While Dr. Chase is correct that the fracturing process is very, very unlikely to cause fractures from the depth of the well to the groundwater, in many areas it does not have to. Old wells elsewhere have been the conduits for contamination of the groundwater and air.” (“Claim that fracking is safe is misleading,” 11/14/11)

Reality: Again, the overwhelming amount of evidence from unbiased peer-reviewed, and government sanctioned reports, do not show any groundwater impacts from hydraulic fracturing operations, through a conduit or otherwise.

Ohio does have orphan wells, but Ohio also has an orphan well program, funded by industry to plug those wells.  If you have an orphan well on your land, you should contact ODNR.  They will work to find the owner and make them plug the well.  If the owner is no longer operating, the Orphan Well program is used to plug the well at no cost to the landowner.

But onto the assertion that these wells can be used as channels or contamination pathways.  First and foremost, the Marcellus and Utica Shales are locked between the Tully limestone formation and the Onondanga limestone. Both of these are impenetrable layers of rock that safeguard the layers of soil beyond their boundaries making it incredibly difficult, and geologically impossible, for fluid migration to occur over thousands of feet in an upward direction (hence the need to hydraulicly fracture to stimulate natural gas production).  ODNR’s Larry Wickstrom’s has a great presentation  on shale development, providing a good illustration of these formations.

Secondly, In hydraulic fracturing operators literally have the ability to see underground thanks to intricate seismic data, pressure mapping, and other highly sophisticated technologies.  Each step of the hydraulic fracturing process is mapped out beforehand in methodic detail and is monitored by a team of professionals.  This occurs from a data monitoring van which tracks every second of the hydraulic fracturing process.  From the location the well is originally placed to take advantage of natural fractures in the shale deposit below to the successful operation of the fracturing job there is not an ounce of work that is not properly planned and subject to extensive oversight including taking into account any old wells that may exist in the area.

Myth: “Dr. Chase points out that there have been no documented cases of ground water contamination in Ohio due to fracking. Officials in environmental protection have told me that by industry’s definition, it will never happen. Where contamination may have occurred, industry denies their involvement, and it is difficult to prove that they are. There have been no studies in peer reviewed journals verifying the safety of fracking. We are rushing forward with little regard for the long term.” (“Claim that fracking is safe is misleading,” 11/14/11)

Reality: To help correct this erroneous statement, let’s take a quick look at just two of Ohio’s peer review studies verifying the safety of hydraulic fracturing:

Ground Water Protection Council August, 2011 –  State Oil and Gas Agency Groundwater Investigations and their Role in Advancing Regulatory Reforms A Two-State Review: Ohio and Texas:

Neither state has documented a single occurrence of groundwater pollution during the site preparation or well stimulation phase of operations. Despite this, Ohio has implemented more detailed notification, inspection, record keeping, and reporting requirements in response to the national debate on the process of hydraulic fracturing.”

While this review does not include West Virginia in it’s investigation, it does highlight Ohio’s long, sound track record of safe, responsible energy development with high regard for the long term. Of course there is always the STRONGER Report we mentioned earlier, what did it have to say:

“Hydraulic fracturing began in Ohio in the 1950s.  Most wells drilled and completed today are completed by hydraulic fracturing operations.  Most of these wells are vertical wells.  Although an estimated 80,000 wells have been fractured in Ohio, state agencies have not identified a single instance where groundwater has been contaminated by hydraulic fracturing operations.”

I touched on the STRONGER report earlier, however for clarification, it is worth mentioning again that it was just this year the peer review of Ohio’s regulations were completed.  Again, this is a workgroup consisting of state regulatory agencies, environmental organizations and industry groups.

Ohio State regulators have confirmed the findings in these studies over the years:

“Historically, since we have been tracking since 1983, we’ve done over 1,000 groundwater investigations in Ohio and there is not one incident in Ohio that hydraulic fracturing has caused ground water contamination.” (ODNR’s Tom Tomastik, as quoted by WYTV, June 9, 2011)

“After 25 years of investigating citizen complaints of contamination, our geologists have not documented a single incident involving contamination of ground water attributed to hydraulic fracturing.” (Scott Kell, Deputy Director of ODNR Division on Mineral Resources Management in May 29, 2009 testimony before Congress)

Of course, these studies only touch on Ohio.  There are a littany of other studies that take a nationwide approach at examining this claim.  Other studies examining the safety of hydraulic fracturing include the 2004, EPA study of hydraulic fracturing in coalbed methane.   There’s also the multi-disciplinary report conducted by the Massachussets Institute of Technology on benefits and impacts from natural gas production from shale.  All of these studies, and more, support that hydraulic fracturing has never impacted groundwater.

Wrap-Up

It is understandable that a public health  official would have or express concerns regarding any industry’s impact on public well-being. However, Mr. Wittberg’s well-intentioned attempt at objectivity in his assertions falls short. The issue lies with Mr. Wittberg recanting an obvious agenda – one based on the many myths of avant-garde filmakers and the recycled propaganda of activist groups.

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