Thursday, April 25, 2013

Unknowns about Eaton Township injection well tell story ...Observations from the field in Ohio

A tanker empties a load of fracking waste at a well in Eaton Ohio
Ohio’s Class II injection wells, depicted on a map as red dots, look like a rash spread over the eastern half of the state. These are end points for fracking waste.

While regulators and industry officials say properly constructed and regulated injection wells are a safe and effective answer to the growing waste stream from shale gas production, others view them as nothing more than sanctioned dumping of industrial toxins. Concerns over the long-term consequences of the practice are compounded by a lack of information about the composition of fracking waste, and distrust of an industry that operates outside of the authority of local jurisdictions and the line of public vision.

There are currently 179 wells in Ohio accepting drilling waste, much of it from Pennsylvania. Earlier this month, I went to see what one of these red dots on the map actually looks like. I was in Oberlin to give talks at the college and a nearby Quaker-inspired retirement community called Kendal at Oberlin. My host and guide was John Elder, an Oberlin College alumnus and Kendall resident with a broad background ranging from elder-community planner to Harvard theologian. Joining us on the field trip was Dennis Hubbard, a geology professor at the college.

We drove east from Oberlin on a series of county roads though a flat landscape of working class single-story homes -- the modest suburban homogeneity sporadically broken by a 19th century farmhouse or an empty field. The neighborhoods, cleared for farming in the 1800s, were later parceled into the kind of post-World War II American dream grounded in conformity, order, and gainful employment at nearby steel and auto plants. Those jobs are disappearing, and some homes are fairing better than others under the weight of change. These kinds of rust-belt neighborhoods are the underdogs in the 21st century’s post-manufacturing economy, and you can’t help but root for them.

John slowed and turned his Toyota van through an open gate onto a dirt lane running along a hedgerow flanking a dormant field amid houses in the Town of Eaton. Within several hundred feet of the road, three holding tanks and a chain link fence came into view. A solitary red tanker truck was on the far end, hooked up by a hose. (I later learned the tanks provide means for operators to recover any remaining traces of gas or oil from the waste before it’s injected.) The entire operation could have fit into a small barn. This was the visible aspect of the Suater well, which extended underground for 20 acres.

The Sauter well was developed in the mid 1980s to produce gas from Clinton Sandstone at a depth of 2,500 feet, a venture that proved unfruitful. In 1985, it was converted into a Class II injection well. It’s relatively small, and used mostly by conventional drilling operators. According to records from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, between 500,000 and 2 million gallons of waste per year is injected under this lot -- less than what is typically produced by a single shale gas well. The red dots to the east, closer to booming Marcellus Shale gas fields in Pennsylvania and new exploration ventures into the Utica Shale in Eastern Ohio, represent busier and more conspicuous operations. According to a report by Aaron Marshall of The Plain Dealer, state records showed Ohio was on pace to store a record amount of drilling waste in 2012 -- nearly 14 million barrels (588 million gallons) -- with about 56 percent coming from out of state, and from Pennsylvania in particular.

It’s likely that Ohio’s potential as a waste importer will continue to expand in the foreseeable future. Aaron reports that applications are pending or have recently been approved for 35 new injection wells in the state. In the northeast corner of Portage County, east of Eaton Township (in Loraine County), work has resumed on a cluster of 14 production and disposal wells that will operate around the clock to accommodate 270 to 300 tankers daily. Public concern has interrupted the plans, but not stopped them. Applications were temporarily suspended statewide in 2012 after state officials determined a dozen earthquakes in 2011, including a 4.0 trembler in Youngstown, were caused by injections wells along a previously unknown fault line. (See report here.) Permits resumed last fall, after officials modified construction standards and included a provision for seismic testing at the discretion of ODNR staff.

Meanwhile, Coast Guard officials are working on a proposal to support the shale gas boom by opening inland waterways to ship fracking waste. The policy would allow flowback, which includes fracking chemicals, brine and other waste that comes from deep formations, to be transported by barge on the Allegany and Ohio Rivers from burgeoning gas fields in Pennsylvania.

Ohio is a favored destination for drilling waste partly due to geology, partly due to its proximity to Pennsylvania, and partly due to regulatory matters. In 1983 the EPA, the body that regulates injection wells, granted Ohio officials authority to oversee those operating within the state. Ohio qualified for this status, called “primacy,” under the Reagan administration. It did this through an application process to show it meets minimum federal requirements to protect drinking water sources. Primacy has since been a key to Ohio’s waste disposal business, because it keeps permitting, record keeping, and inspections in the hands of state officials, easing the kind of bureaucratic hassles associated with federally regulated waste disposal programs.

Another factor comes into play, and it’s not limited to Ohio: The drilling and fracking industry is exempt from federal hazardous waste disposal laws. Consequently, fracking waste can be injected into Class II wells, which have less stringent specifications and lower costs than Class I wells mandated for hazardous waste. For drilling or fracking operators from Pennsylvania, it’s cheaper to get rid of waste in Class II wells, and cheaper still in Ohio, which has both the regulations and subterranean space, such as the Sauter well.

The red tanker at the Sauter well was operated by a burly man in a t-shirt and jeans. He approached us in a manner that suggested varying degrees of menace and curiosity and waited for us to explain ourselves. He fingered an unlit cigarette. His boss didn’t say anything about us being there, he said in a southern drawl.

Dennis, dressed in jeans, boots, t-shirt and work vest, looks like a man who has spent much of his ample career in the field. Dennis did the talking for our party, and his confidence in the subject, along with his observation that “there are people on all sides of this issue,” seemed to gain some purchase with the truck driver. I didn’t want to discourage the conversation by pulling out a note pad, so I left them to talk, trusting that I would be able to draw on state records to flesh out what little was visible from the scene.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Oil and Gas Data base has online production records that show the early history of the Sauter well, when it was developed by Dome Producing, but nothing since it was converted to an injection well in the early 1990s under the ownership of S & H Water Service. Mark Bruce, a spokesman for the DNR, explained that the agency was still adding to its online data base, and he forwarded me files that I had requested. They included 10 notices of violations between 1991 and 2009 for leaks, substandard equipment specifications, missing records, and a complaint by a town zoning official on behalf of residents about noise, smells and truck traffic. 

Citations are not unusual for injection and production wells, and it’s hard to gauge their significance and effectiveness in the broader context of things. ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten offered this perspective in a June, 2012 piece for Scientific America:

A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

Lustgarten cites an injection well in Chico, Texas as one example. Despite engineering models and calculations, officials had no idea the well would fail until one day in 2003 when, as described by Chico Public Works Director Ed Cowley, waste began bubbling up from the ground from other points on the property like artesian springs. How often does this sort of thing happen? Lustgarten’s attempt to quantify information – including the rate of failure on injection wells -- based on EPA records lead to dead ends due to a lack of information.

… the EPA acknowledged it has done very little with the data it collects. The agency could not provide ProPublica with a tally of how frequently wells fail or of how often disposal regulations are violated. It has not counted the number of cases of waste migration or contamination in more than 20 years. The agency often accepts reports from state injection regulators that are partly blank, contain conflicting figures or are missing key details, ProPublica found.

In 2007, the EPA launched a national data system to centralize reports on injection wells. As of September 2011 — the last time the EPA issued a public update — less than half of the state and local regulatory agencies overseeing injection were contributing to the database. It contained complete information from only a handful of states, accounting for a small fraction of the deep wells in the country.

The waste is not subject to testing or disclosure requirements, so its hard to know what is in a given load, but flowback from oil and gas wells typically contain salts, naturally occurring radio isotopes, heavy metals, petroleum byproducts such as benzene and various volatile organic compounds, and undisclosed array of chemicals used in fracking. Accidents sometimes happen, and sometimes they make news. Last spring, an injection well tank exploded in Parker County Texas after a “vapor management system” failed and gasses backed up into the storage tank, according to the fire marshal, as reported by the Weatherford Democrat. There were no injuries. Firefighters eventually extinguished the blaze and hazardous waste crews were dispatched to contain the resulting spill. In 2003, an explosion killed three operators who were pumping waste from trucks into a well in Rosharon, Texas. 

In Ohio, John Elder and I left Dennis to chat with the tanker operator and we walked across the street where a local activist was talking with a neighbor. With only a fraction of the operation visible above ground, the telltale sign of an injection well’s status is truck traffic. And traffic to this well, along with news about the earthquakes in other areas and general concerns about Ohio’s status as a drilling waste importer, had made the Sauter well an item of curiosity and suspicion. Activists and some community members saw the well as both precedent and harbinger, and they were making inquiries of their own.

John Pais, a member of Oberlin’s Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy and the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, was chatting with a woman who lives across the street in a tidy Cape Cod style house with a swing set in the yard. It’s where she and her husband raised their children, now mostly grown. Pais was jotting notes on a yellow legal pad in the interest of self-education and to share with officials from the town zoning board. The woman’s husband was fighting brain cancer, he learned.  The woman noted trucks coming and going, and something that once smelled like burning rubber for days on end, but although she had lived there for a significant part of her life, she knew little about the history or current status of the operation “or what they are taking out of there.” I explained that it was an injection, well – that they were putting stuff in rather than taking it out. “They’re putting stuff in?” she asked, incredulously.

I didn’t see, in this particular field trip, the Big Story: hard evidence that injections wells are categorically bad, or reasons to believe they are harmless. But I did see a recurring theme in the broader story of local residents waking up to regional impacts of shale gas development: a disconnect between the industry and the communities in which it operates. It’s likely that people who live across the street from a chicken farm, auto plant, forgery, saw mill, furniture manufacture, trash incinerator, or quarry sometimes have issues with their business neighbors, but those issues are generally guided by an understanding of what they are dealing with, how they operate, and whether they conform to local ordinances. Unresolved issues can go before the town board. Likewise, the functions of a quarry truck, a milk truck, a UPS truck, or a manure spreader are familiar to the people who see them, and perhaps their operators less guarded about people approaching them for information.

Regardless, people tend not to like waste disposal operations in their neighborhoods, and there is a Home Rule movement afoot in Ohio working against injection wells. As Marshal reports in the Plain Dealer, nearly 63 percent of voters in the Town of Mansfield, in the southern part of the state, approved a home rule charter amendment that opens the door for local municipalities, rather than the state, to site injection wells. A waste disposal company with state approval to operate a pair of injections wells in the town is challenging the case in a federal court in Cleveland. Meanwhile, injection well bans passed in Cincinnati, Yellow Springs and Niles will serve as similar legal tests for the jurisdiction of local governments.

Waste disposal is an essential component to cheap energy production, but it is not comprehensively factored into the cost of doing business. Is shale gas production, as many proponents suggest, an eco-friendly bridge to a sustainable future and if so, have the legacy costs of injection wells been accounted for? Can large (and undetermined) volumes of undisclosed waste injected into the ground be counted on to remain put despite geological changes and physical deterioration of well casings over generations? More broadly, how is a well that the government sanctions as a waste repository different from a production well where a large percentage of the frack fluid pumped into the ground to stimulate production remains unrecovered?

The risks and rewards of shale gas development need to be deeply considered. Shale gas development offers energy independence to this country over the short term, and carbon fuels in general offer the promise of relief to energy-impoverished countries striving for the same standard of living that Americans have enjoyed for generations. But it’s hard to weigh all the factors fully and fairly over the long term with an industry that tends to operate out of public view.


  1. Tom--you asked: "More broadly, how is a well that the government sanctions as a waste repository different from a production well where a large percentage of the frack fluid pumped into the ground to stimulate production remains unrecovered?"

    A couple of related points to consider: 1) the model for shale gas development is to have several wells on one well pad, so each well pad will result in fluid from multiple (perhaps as many as twelve) wells being left underground; and 2) as always, the overall scale of shale gas development should be considered. The model is to have one well pad per square mile, so we could end up with large regions of the country in which almost every square mile has been injected with fracking fluid from multiple wells, with each well requiring millions of gallons of fluid.

    I'm don't think that anyone really knows what the short- or long-term results of such a development model may be. It's a big gamble and whatever costs are involved are likely to be passed on to the public rather than the gas industry.

    1. costs beyond the obvious monetary toll we will pay. What price for a clean stream, clean air, safe drinking water? What price for a spring evening with only the tree frogs for company? What price the site of the moonlight on the trees instead of the full force of stadium lights? What would our children's children pay for a ride on a country road through a deep lush unfragmented forest? The future is bleak for Penn's Woods and that future is here.

    2. Mary, following up with the statement in your last paragraph, "I'm don't think that anyone really knows what the short- or long-term results of such a development model may be." It is known, nobody wants to address it. Too much capital has been sunk for rapid deployment or development of hydraulic fracturing and the cost of gas is too low right now for anything but the bear minimum operations and maintenance costs. That would include environmental and decommissioning costs as well. So the situation we're in right now regardless of shale play is to keep costs low, downplay the risks and attract more investment capital. The ultimate hope for a reasonable return on investment is for gas to come up in price via coal generation shutdown, offshore sales and transportation switch from diesel to natural gas. I'll bet anyone $5.00 that in a one to two years we'll be paying around $7.00/MMBTU. Or $9.00/MMBTU if ALEC and the Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats successfully block renewables deployment.

      I think a fair question to ask yourself as a resident of NYS is, would you accept a windmill or two on your property? Disclosure: I think wind is awesome, but I only own a postage stamp size piece of land.

    3. Michael – Thanks for fleshing that out. I agree that economic inertia, however expressed (and you do a good job here) keeps carbon fuels stuck in the path of expanding renewables in a meaningful way. The question is, what event or series of events will it take to overcome this inertia?

    4. Tom,
      It's the first beautiful Saturday here in Berwyn, Illinois and I should be weeding the garden and whatnot. So instead I'll try to answer your question (as a procrastination activity to avoid weeding).

      Specifically to flowback water. Your article spurred me to research water treatment alternatives - chiefly to deep well injection. In short, there's a great quote that I can't remember where I read or who said it, but it was something like this: "as long as there's a hole in the ground to get rid of flowback water, treatment and recycling won't be an economically viable option." So it comes down to cost - given that deepwell injection is allowed by States.

      You may want to look up University of North Dakota environmental or civil engineering research work on the subject of flowback water. During my rapid google searching I read some interesting work by them. Anyway, another important issue to consider is availability of freshwater close to drilling sites. For instance, Texas is seriously looking into treatment and recycling given its water limitations. On the other hand, North Dakota lost its incentive to find alternatives to deepwell injection since the Army Corps of Engineers allocated an enormous amount of water from the Missouri River for fracking use. It becomes easiest and cheapest to take fresh water, stir in essential ingredients, inject, collect and dispose.

      Pennsylvania is somewhat in a same situation as North Dakota. There is some push back on surface and groundwater use. However, water from mine dewatering is starting to be used. This is the water that is pumped to keep either a surface or deep mine from flooding. The volumes are huge. So again, with readily available fresh water, deep well injection becomes the option of choice - since there no regulatory reason not to do so.

      As far as incentives? I'm going to have to go with Natural Law rather than a carrot or stick approach. Natural resource exploitation has to consider, well, nature in its quest to squeeze every mineral out of mother earth. Shame and declaration of good v. evil is a start. This new approach of "environmental capitalism" as promoted by The Breakthrough Institute, EDF, NYT and others is just a way to make hedge fund manager's wives and billionaire heirs to feel better about themselves. The air, water and land continues to get worse with the rise of "common sense" environmental NGOs and fall of government agencies. It's time to point out the BS and divest.

    5. Following up on my previous reply regarding incentives for doing something, anything relating to environmental protection and exploitation of shale oil and gas.

      Here's an interesting paper titled: "Anatomy of Crude Oil Pricing," by Bassam Fattouh of the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies.

      The paper is long and wonkish, but utterly fascinating. My quick synopsis. Oil and gas pricing has nothing to do with the fundamentals of supply and demand. Sadly, my gut says that environmental health and safety operational costs would impede on the excitability of the market. In other words, when a war starts, refinery shuts down or a pipeline bursts volatility is added to the financialized value of crude oil. Making more money for those invested. The paper applies to crude oil, but gas can be included given our interest in shipping LNG overseas. ounce of prevention doesn't necessitate a pound of cure.

      From the summary regarding financialization of crude oil prices:

      "In the last two decades or so, many financial layers (paper markets) have emerged around crude oil benchmarks. They include the forward market (in Brent and Dubai), swaps, futures, and options. Some of the instruments such as futures and options are traded on regulated exchanges such as ICE and CME Group, while other instruments, such as swaps, options and forward contracts, are traded bilaterally over the counter (OTC). Nevertheless, these financial layers are highly interlinked through the process of arbitrage and the development of instruments that links the various layers together. Over the years, these markets have grown in terms of size, liquidity, sophistication and have attracted a diverse set of players both physical and financial. These markets have become central for market participants wishing to hedge their risk and to bet on oil price movements. Equally important, these financial layers have become central to the oil price identification process."

      From the summary on the participants in futures trading:

      "The report also calls for broadening the empirical research to include the trading strategies of physical players. In recent years, the futures markets have attracted a wide range of financial players including swap dealers, pension funds, hedge funds, index investors, technical traders, and high net worth individuals. There are concerns that these financial players and their trading strategies could move the oil price away from the „true‟ underlying fundamentals. The fact remains however that the participants in many of the OTC markets such as forward markets and CFDs which are central to the price discovery process are mainly „physical‟ and include entities such as refineries, oil companies, downstream consumers, physical traders, and market makers. Financial players such as pension funds and index investors have limited presence in many of these markets. Thus, any analysis limited to non-commercial
      participants in the futures market and their role in the oil price formation process is incomplete and also
      potentially misleading."

    6. Michael

      Thanks for this research and analysis. Hope it didn’t keep you from the weeds in your garden, although I appreciate your guiding us through the weeds here. …Excellent points about the dynamics of water resources available in a given area, and how ultimately the cost to operators influences their tendency to embrace “recycling.” (Although I’m yet to find a good definition of what that is.) In a nut, should we ever be surprised that free enterprise is, without exception, drive by the bottom line, and incentives/disincentives are determined by who bares the costs? Greenwashing is a related issue, and one worth addressing. Perhaps that’s another book.

    7. Tom,
      There's a weird PR push going on with fracking stories by a whole slew of news outlets this week. One being a recent US EPA report on GHG emissions inventory and another on Pennsylvania DEP decision on methane in groundwater at Franklin Forks, PA. Most of the stories are simply republishing of one press release, with blind links to environmental protection agencies. For instance, the story on fracking and GHG emissions stated something like "the US EPA proves a reduction in GHG emissions as a result of fracking." I read the US EPA report and that wasn't stated at all. The report was simply an emissions inventory across all sectors based on industry monitoring. No interpretation of results or conclusions were made - just a presentation of results.

      The Franklin Forks story is really confusing. There's no mention of the matter or presentation of results by PA DEP on its website.

      I'm wondering if we're going to get a lot of this kind of PR and message control stuff between now and the general release of Gasland II.

    8. You present a pretty good characterization of both the EPA and the Pa. DEP stories, but I don’t see it related to Gasland II. I think a lot of it has to do with a more general undercurrent of pressure from industry PR on journalist, who are understaffed and ready to embrace ready made news and, moreover, pushed to “tell the other side.” This is known in the industry as he-said-she-said journalism or “false equivalence.” It’s the same phenomenon that has lead to a disproportionate serving of talking heads on cable– its much cheaper and easier than investigative work, and it seems to pass muster with viewers. That said, I think the basics behind the EPA story warrant reporting. The agency’s stance on gas emissions is an important indicator on where it might go with fracking and groundwater. Regarding the DEP statement on the Franklin Forks – I have that statement, which you correctly point out is not on their website. In my judgment, this is worth a brief in the local paper and not more. Here I suspect the hand of industry PR pressure. We know that there are instances where methane migration is unrelated to drilling. For news outlets that originally reported the Franklin Forks methane investigation (and there are not many) it’s worth closing the record on these three cases. (I will be posting an update for SGR.) But if reporters pick up this story, they must also note the dozens of cases several miles to the south in Dimock where the DEP has concluded that methane migration is related to drilling.

    9. Thanks Tom and interesting background on the current state of journalism. I haven't seen Gasland 1 and probably won't see the followup. I just made a guess at why there seems to be a proliferation in PR logrolling on "environmentally safe fracking" lately.

  2. Michael: Back when the shale gas rush started, my husband and I decided to visit not only the gas fields of PA, but also a PA wind farm so we could make a firsthand comparison between the two. Having seen (and listened to) both the gas development in PA and the wind farm, I can honestly say that given a choice between the two, I would much prefer to have the wind farm in my neighborhood. (My husband feels the same way.)

    The wind farm may be a little noisy, but even when we got within about 1500 feet of an individual turbine, the noise wasn't nearly as troubling as the noise from a compressor station that we visited in PA. And the wind turbine isn't going to poison the water and air, blow up, or leak thousands of gallons of dangerous chemicals onto its site. And anyway, sooner or later, we're going to need the wind turbines and the solar panels; I would rather have just wind turbines and solar panels, not wind turbines, solar panels, and gas wells.

    1. That is interesting Mary. I've been wondering what farmers and rural landowners think about windmills on their property. When driving along I-65 to Bloomington, Indiana from Chicago, I pass an enormous windmill installation that must expand several land holdings. Or someone owns a lot of farmland. By the way, this is the part of Indiana (and Illinois) that is really, really flat, blessed by mother nature with the perfect amount of rain and has some of the most productive soil in the world.

  3. I agree with everything that yoko and Michael said in their comments. But to be a bit more specific in regard to my earlier comment, I don't think that anyone knows what the short- or long-term effects on groundwater will be given that the model is to construct one well pad per square mile over very large areas of PA and NY with multiple wells on each pad and each well requiring millions of gallons of fracking fluid, much of which will stay in the ground. That's a lot of injected fracking fluid, distributed over very large areas, in regions where people are heavily dependent on groundwater. It's a huge experiment that could ultimately have very high costs both in human and financial terms.

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  5. I had an alternator installed at Ed's Midview Service on SR 82 in Grafton. The work was started a day or two late. In the meantime, my recently painted car sat in Ed's poorly lit parking lot. When my alternator was finally installed, Ed called me and invited me to pick the car up after hours. When I arrived, I immediately noticed that my car was backed into the same space where I parked it two or three days earlier. A dark colored truck or SUV was parked in the space to the driver's side with very little room in between.

    Because of the position of the car, poor lighting, and the close proximity of the truck or SUV, I didn't get a good look at the driver's side of my car until after I pulled into my destination just up the road. When I got out, I immediately noticed a large dent in the rear door on the driver's side. I left several messages for Ed that evening and spoke with him the following morning. When I mentioned the damage, he said that it was already there when I dropped it off and that he had two witnesses to prove it. THAT WAS A LIE. When I dropped my car off several days earlier, there was no one there but Ed. So his claim to have witnesses could not have been true. Still, he refused to accept any responsibility for the damage.

    About 48 hours after picking my car up, it broke down leaving me stranded about 25 miles from home. The cost to have it towed was $130. The repair charge was another $60. The problem was with the main wire for the alternator that Ed had installed. It had fallen off or broken off. It had never fallen off before Ed laid his hands on it and it hasn't fallen off since.

    All together, I am out an additional $350 for the damage to the rear door, $130 for the tow, and $60 for the second repair to the alternator.

    I have already filed a complaint with the Better Business Bureau. The details will be posted on their website in a few weeks unless Ed grows a moral spine, honors a reasonable portion of his own warranty and pays for the body damage to my car, which by the way was in near mint condition until it was severely dented at Ed's Midview Service. In the meantime, I am going to post this warning all over the web.

    I have also challenged Ed in writing to a polygraph (lie detector) test. Loser pays the bill. He initially pretended to accept my challenge but then backed out immediately when I called him to make the necessary arrangements. He will never accept my polygraph challenge because he knows that I will pass and he will fail.

    Beware of work delays, poorly lit parking lots, and mechanics who refuse to accept any responsibility when they screw up. Beware of Ed's Midview Service.

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