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Did fracking cause the recent earthquakes in Poland Township, Ohio? The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has been assessing the situation since March 10, 2014, when it ordered a halt to operations at a complex of seven oil and gas production wells owned by Hilcorp Energy Corporation. Interestingly, the ODNR has ruled out the possibility that a deep injection well 14 miles away from the Poland site could have caused the tremors--even though United States Geological Survey (USGS) says deep injection wells can cause earthquakes as far as 15 miles away. 

The order was issued “out of an abundance of caution”, according to ODNR, because two earthquakes, measuring magnitudes of 2.6 and 3.0, were detected in the vicinity of the drilling site. No damage or injury resulted from the quakes. According to local media reports, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) located the epicenter of one of the quakes directly below one of the Hilcorp wells that was undergoing fracking operations. The Hilcorp site is 15 miles southeast of Youngstown.On further review of seismic data, it was determined five earthquakes had occurred in a 25 hour period at the same time fracking operations were ongoing. Follow up investigation has determined that 12 earthquakes have occurred in the area in the month of March thus far. 

Background

It should be pointed out that these recent quakes are unrelated to the 4.0 magnitude earthquake that occurred at the Northstar I deep injection well in Youngstown on Dec. 31, 2011. That earthquake prompted ODNR to impose a drilling ban within a five mile radius of the Northstar I well location. It was determined that the Northstar I well had been drilled directly on a fault line. A causal connection between the Northstar well and the earthquake was determined. The State of Ohio responded by enacting what are purported to be the “strictest” regulations in the country, with the siting of injection wells requiring, among other things, significant geological assessment for the presence of fault lines. 

The Poland wells were for oil and gas production, not waste water injection. Injection wells involve disposing significant amounts of waste water by pumping it under pressure deep into the ground. The pressure created by this type of disposal can create seismic events when the strain of that pressure meets a fault line. Fracking operations involve less pumped liquid, and are thought to be much less likely to cause seismic events. As the term suggests, “fracking” is intended to fracture weak shale layers, thereby creating fissures that allow trapped gas and oil to be released and produced. Much of the fracking fluid used to fracture the shale also returns to the surface in the form of “flowback”. Simply put, fracking, by design, relieves stress and pressure, rather than producing it. 

Unanswered questions

How will the State of Ohio respond if it determines that fracking activities did cause the Poland earthquakes? Will we see the same comprehensive regulatory changes that we saw for the permitting of deep injection wells after the Northstar I incident? Will oil and gas exploration and production well permits applications require the same level of geological fault line assessment that deep injection wells require? Will such assessments become a standard part of potential lease site due diligence? Stay tuned. The rules of this game may change significantly.

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