Environmental experts warn fracking on state lands in Ohio is dangerous, economically dubious

By: - June 29, 2023 4:45 am

Fracking pumpjacks. These pieces of equipment are crucial to oil field and fracking operations. Getty Images.

The Ohio Oil and Gas Land Management Commission heard from three environmentally-minded experts Wednesday skeptical of opening state lands to exploration. They argued the industry is downplaying risks and the strain on resources while offering an overly optimistic outlook.

Understanding the threats

Silverio Caggiano spends a lot of time thinking about worst case scenarios. The retired Youngstown Fire battalion chief has nearly four decades of experience as a firefighter and spent more than 30 years dealing with hazardous materials. He argues the emergency response plans fracking companies offer are “paper tigers.”

“They’ll list fire service is XYZ fire department,” Caggiano said. “They neglect to put in there that XYZ fire department is a volunteer fire department and it may be an extended response time before those people actually get there to help solve your problem.”

He pointed to the Eisenbarth well fire and the Powhatan gas leak as two recent examples. In both cases, he said, the company had emergency response plans that checked all the boxes but fell apart when tested.

Caggiano also criticized the lack of information companies make available to first responders. He showed a Material Safety Data Sheet, or MSDS, for a Halliburton chemical marketed as GasPerm 1000. In the row where it would normally have a unique ID number for the compound, instead it says “proprietary.”

“They’re giving you information, but it’s useless,” Caggiano explained. “I cannot go verify this.”

Although big fires might grab more attention, Caggiano raised concerns about slower crises as well. Big trucks on small access roads is a recipe for accidents, he said. And while he worries about the brand name chemicals companies put in, he’s also concerned about substances like radium that fracking pulls out of the ground.

He described how a company that tried to clean that contaminated water went out of business.

“You can get the suspended solids you can get some of the chemicals out with filtration just couldn’t seem to get the radium out,” Caggiano said. “So is there a recyclability of this water? No. Not with the radium in it, no way.  Radium 226 has a half-life of 1,600 years.”

Public crutches

Meanwhile, Ted Auch an environmental scientist with the FracTracker Alliance, contends fracking isn’t the commercial success story the industry often portrays. Auch acknowledges drillers can point to graphs showing year-over-year production increases. But that looks like a sugar rush when you consider what’s happening on a per-well basis, Auch argued.

“The fracking revolution was promised to bring about 20 to 30 year plus lifespans for wells,” Auch explained. “But the truth is productivity falls off a cliff at an exponential rate at the tune of 85% declines from year one to year two. That’s what the data says. And then from year to year three, it’s even more by year five. We’re not even talking about production.”

Oil and gas companies stay in the black by drilling more and more wells, but Auch noted they’re getting a lot of public support too.

In particular, he brought up the cost of water — crucial to the hydraulic fracturing process. In 2012, the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District sold water at $9 per 1,000 gallons. But now, Auch said, a Tappan Lake deal has water going for just $3 per 1,000 gallons.

“You have an industry that needs this water,” Auch said. “Market forces would dictate that supply and demand should tell you that if they need something and we have it we should dictate the price. But it seems like the tail is wagging the dog here and they’re getting water for a fraction for pennies on the dollar.”

Auch said the current rate represents only about 0.25% to 0.75% of operating costs. Adding in the average cost of fines only moves that needle to about 1%.

“They don’t blink,” he said. “We don’t make them blink. They don’t blink when we don’t actually scold them.”

Cost benefit

Cheap water, light fines, access to public lands — in the end Auch contends it all amounts to a public subsidy for an industry “that was never a beacon of resource use efficiency.”

Environmental scientist Randi Pokladnik argued the areas around well pads face death by a thousand cuts. In the literal sense, pipelines to service drilling operations reduce habitats by dicing up forested areas. But even small spills, she argued, can have significant impacts.

“There was an actual study where they deliberately sprayed fracking fluid waste into an experimental forest in West Virginia,” she described. “And they showed that within 10 days, all the understory plants had died and then in less than a year all the tree species had succumbed.”

Auch argued the commission can’t make an honest assessment of costs and benefits without taking all of that into account.

Auch depicted it as a fraction. He told the commission to put the production, profits and jobs the companies promise in the denominator. Then put all the industry’s demands on resources like water and externalities like the risk of fire or chemical spills in the numerator.

“And we demand that they bring those numbers to us,” Auch said. “They don’t just say to us, we’re gonna build a five acre wall pad right here, We’re gonna have a truck right-of-way right here and then we’ll be done with it.”

“We know that’s not the case,” he said. “It’s never been the case. This is an increasingly sloppy industry.”

Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nick Evans
Nick Evans

Nick Evans has spent the past seven years reporting for NPR member stations in Florida and Ohio. He got his start in Tallahassee, covering issues like redistricting, same sex marriage and medical marijuana. Since arriving in Columbus in 2018, he has covered everything from city council to football. His work on Ohio politics and local policing have been featured numerous times on NPR.