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Wednesday, July 6,2011

Athens may ban fracking, which may not happen in city anyway

By David DeWitt
Although no drilling appears imminent, and no city land has been leased, Athens City Council is in the process of exploring an ordinance that would regulate or all-out ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or "fracking," within the city.

At this point, First Ward council member Kent Butler said Friday, Athens Law Director Pat Lang is looking into the legal issues with regard to fracking regulation.

"So the law director is in possession of the Pittsburgh legislation for us to begin working off of as a starting point," Butler said, referring to laws the Pennsylvania city passed regulating fracking.

He said his understanding is that Pittsburgh was the first city in the country to pass anti-hydraulic fracturing legislation. In Ohio, he said, the city of Yellow Springs passed a resolution against the controversial drilling method.

Fracking involves pumping pressurized liquid water and other chemicals into the ground to force the gas to the surface. In its "vertical" form, which involves straight-line downward drilling, fracking has been practiced in Ohio and elsewhere for decades. Horizontal fracking entails drilling vertically, then drilling sideways when you the targeted shale formation, then pumping in the pressurized liquid.

As The NEWS reported late last year, many eastern Ohio counties were starting at that time to see a major leasing boom. It came from companies interested in drilling into the two shale formations, the Marcellus and Utica, that underlie about 54,000 square miles beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland. The boom is based largely on the horizontal fracking technique, which enables drillers to force more gas or oil out of the shale than with older techniques.

Many people are deeply concerned about the environmental effects of fracking, which can use a million gallons of water per well, some of which is rendered toxic and un-reusable by the chemicals added to it, and those it picks up underground.

Last week, a local oil-and-gas industry insider, Walter T. Savage, predicted that Athens County is unlikely to see a major increase in drilling any time soon, especially with regard to horizontal fracking. Basically, he suggested that the shale formations underlying our county aren't as promising for hydraulic fracturing as other areas farther to the east and north.

Nevertheless, Butler, along with at-large City Council member Elahu Gosney and Third Ward City Council member Nancy Bain are exploring the creation of a new ordinance.

"We want to get our ducks in a row and have a discussion in committee meeting," Butler said.

One snag, he said, is that the Pittsburgh legislation is based on the Pennsylvania constitution, so it may not translate as well to Ohio law, although, he added, Ohio law is similar.

He pointed to a provision in Ohio's constitution giving the people the right to happiness and safety. He said Pittsburgh based its legislation on inalienable rights such as having clean water and clean air, and the same could be done here in Ohio.

Butler said the fear with fracking is that ground water and wells could become polluted. Some other things that play into the issue are that Athens gets all of its drinking water from wellheads. However, drilling is unlikely to happen within the city itself, so the question becomes how the city might regulate the potential run-off contamination from drilling that occurs outside city limits. Butler said he'll have to look at the Pittsburgh legislation more closely to find out how that city has dealt with this issue.

(Supporters of fracking say that reports of water problems elsewhere have been greatly exaggerated.)

Council member Elahu Gosney said that no draft has been put together at this point.

"To be honest, we're not very far along," he said. "But there are a number of citizens in Athens hoping we get something put together."

He said although fracking wells are not likely within the city, the issue is worth pursuing if, for nothing else, to raise awareness of the potential threats involved.

"That's my motivation, to make sure the people know the city of Athens is concerned about it as an environmental threat," he said.

While the city does have a wellhead protection ordinance, Gosney said, if a fracking well went up just outside city limits, he would be very concerned about unknown pollutants getting into the city's drinking water supply.

Another concern that he said Bain had brought up and he's concerned about as well involves communities in Pennsylvania treating fracking waste through waste-water treatment plants.

"That's something we don't want to do, is bring in fracking wastewater with all the unknown pollutants that are in it and send it through our waste water plant," he said. "That's certainly something I think we would look to address in any legislation that we bring forward."

Gosney said that after attending a meeting at the White House last week where he and other met with one of President Obama's energy advisers, the impression he got was that regulations would be left up to the states.

"That was a little disheartening to hear," he said, "because states like Ohio and Pennsylvania are clearly not doing what they need to do to make sure the drilling is done safely."

Faced with that scenario, Gosney said, the local-level option becomes more attractive.

"I think it's our responsibility to do something because it does represent such a threat to our drinking water and the air that we breathe," he said. "Hopefully it's something other places can follow if we're successful in getting something passed. I think that can be helpful."


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