Though some environmentalists have expressed concerns over proposed changes to the rules regulating "fracking" in Ohio, state officials have indicated that the changes, if adopted, will actually make regulation more rigorous.
Almost two-dozen environmental groups across the state, however, have said they're worried about the process by which the state is revising its regulations, and about some specific changes that are on tap.
Some of the concern among critics of fracking appears to be based on the fact that the state agency that regulates oil-and-gas drilling is rescinding some of the existing rules. According to a report in the Youngstown Vindicator yesterday, however, these changes are being made only to clear the legal decks for a new, stricter set of rules.
Because a state law passed last year supersedes older drilling regulations, the story reported, the older rules based on past law must be taken off the books to make way for the new ones.
"Fracking" is the popular term that refers to horizontal drilling for oil and gas with hydraulic fracturing.
The relatively new method, which has triggered a boom in oil-and-gas exploration in Eastern states including New York, Pennsylvania, and most recently Ohio, involves drilling straight down into a shale bed containing oil and gas, then drilling out sideways in multiple directions, then using a pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the shale and release the oil and gas. (See related article in this issue for an in-depth explanation of the process.)
Hydraulic fracturing has been used in vertical wells for decades; the new element is the horizontal drilling that allows capture of oil and gas from a much larger geographic area from a single well pad.
There is intense interest in this issue in Athens County, as energy companies in recent months have begun leasing up thousands of acres for possible drilling. Critics of fracking express concerns about its potential to contaminate water supplies, as well as other environmental impacts.
Last year, the Ohio Legislature passed a law, Senate Bill 165, which was designed to tighten up regulations on fracking in anticipation of the drilling boom spreading into the state.
Currently, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management is seeking changes to the rules it uses to apply the regulatory legislation.
According to the agency's website, it "is requesting comments on proposed amendments to 22 of its existing rules, which have been drafted pursuant to Senate Bill 16… In addition, the division proposes to rescind seven of its existing rules and to continue 14 of its existing rules with no changes. These changes are in addition to the stronger well construction rules that have recently been put out for comment."
The public comment period on the proposed rule changes ends Friday. Comments can be e-mailed to the Division at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those concerned about fracking – including at least two letter-writers in today's Athens NEWS – have expressed worries that the state is pulling back on its level of regulation.
"If implemented, the changes will make things considerably easier for the fracking industry without sufficient regard for people's health, safety and wellbeing, and without sufficient protection of the environment," one writer maintained.
According to an official of the ODNR quoted in the Youngstown Vindicator, however, the elimination of some of the existing regulations is a necessary prerequisite to putting in place newer, tougher standards.
"You have to go and cut those (regulations) out of the law, because they are no longer consistent with the law," ODNR spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans told the paper.
As just one example, the paper cited the plan to get rid of a 75-foot minimum distance between an oil-and-gas well and an existing structure or adjacent property. While that rule may be scrapped, the story noted, this is being done to replace it with a tougher, 150-foot minimum distance.
Last week, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, 22 environmental groups and individuals signed on to a plan submitted to the state, calling for more changes to tighten up the regulatory framework. Those involved ranged from big organizations such as the Ohio Environmental Council, to small, locally based groups.
The Buckeye Forest Council – which started in Athens County but is now based in Columbus – sent out a message to its members in a recent newsletter, urging them to "tell ODNR to fix Ohio's weak oil and gas regulations."
The message cited some specific proposed changes the group is concerned about, including one that would eliminate the need for drilling companies to submit a plan for disposal of wastewater used in fracking operation.
"This provision is needed to establish a chain of custody for harmful materials," the newsletter argued. "The Division has the authority and discretion to retain this rule, despite it being removed as a requirement from the Revised Code."
The BFC also called for more stringent requirements for water sampling in urban areas; and for extension of some requirements now applied only in urban areas to rural areas as well.
Hetzel-Evans, of the ODNR, however, told the Youngstown Vindicator that the state reviewed regulations from about a half-dozen states and the federal EPA and feels the new restrictions will be among the most strict.
"When passed, we expect these rules to be some of the strongest rules in the nation," she told the newspaper.
Environmental attorney Richard Sahli, who is heavily involved in the opposition to the new rules, said Wednesday that SB 165 "was generally an improvement… We're not pointing out any flaws in 165." However, Sahli argued, ODNR could have used the legislation to craft a much tougher set of regulations than those it's proposing; as the proposed changes stand, he said, they're "significantly weaker" than those now in place in neighboring states such as Pennsylvania.
Sahli also argued that the proposed rules contain a fair amount of "jargon" from the oil-and-gas industry, which make them "very vague," and would make any legal action to try to enforce them in court "extremely problematical."