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Monday, May 28,2012

Hayes seeks drilling permit; injection wells probed

By Jim Phillips
Photo Credits: Photo by Dustin Franz.
Photo Caption: According to an investigative story on the NBC channel 4 in Columbus last week, this injection well off River Road in Rome Township accepted some 53,000 barrels of oil and gas drilling wastewater in November and December.

In the latest developments in Athens County's ever-evolving oil-and-gas drilling prospects, a local developer has now applied for a permit to open a new vertical well in Rome Township. The county has also recently been the focus of a Columbus TV news investigation of wastewater injection wells in Ohio and how well they're regulated.

RECORDS FROM THE Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management show that James Brent Hayes submitted his application on Friday for a vertical well into the Utica-Pt. Pleasant deep-shale formation.

As Hayes and his business partner Randy Wolfe, of R. Wolfe Oil and Gas, LLC, told The Athens NEWS earlier this month, they have decided to drill a new well on a farm Hayes owns, partly to try to determine how oil-rich the Utica shale play is in the county.

If they bring up profitable levels of oil, however, the men said, they hope the well will go into production.

With a few companies courting landowners to sign lease options for oil-and-gas drilling here, and lease terms going up and down, one big source of uncertainty has been the shortage of publicly available, hard scientific data on whether drilling into the Utica here will repay the investment it will take to do so.

A report from Ohio's state geologist, released in March, suggests that Athens County is outside the richest part of the shale play, but state officials admit this is based on limited data points, and that oil-and-gas companies interested in the area likely have much more complete data that they've collected on their own and are not sharing.

Hayes and Wolfe's proposed well will not use the controversial horizontal hydraulic fracturing method, in which drillers dig down vertically into the shale bed, then turn the line horizontally to collect more oil and gas. Numerous wells can be drilled from one several-acre well pad, accessing oil and gas from up to 1,200 acres of land.

The method uses a mix of water, sand and chemicals to shatter the shale bed, allowing the pressure of the earth above it to force the oil and gas to the surface.

WHILE MANY LOCAL residents worry about "fracking" in Athens County, others are more concerned about what will be done with the wastewater from fracking operations, even if the drilling doesn't happen here.

Last Wednesday, the NBC TV affiliate in Columbus aired an investigative piece by reporter Rick Reitzel, who looked at how well Ohio is monitoring and regulating fracking wastewater that's trucked into Ohio for storage in underground injection wells.

The story reported that last year, Ohio accepted more than 12 billion barrels of drilling waste, and that 60 percent came from out of state. Though the state has the authority to test the contents of the waste fluid, Reitzel reported, officials have told him this is only done if there's an accident at an injection well.

NBC Channel 4's team followed trucks bringing wastewater into Athens County, which has four existing injection wells and two more sites that are seeking permits. At a well off River Road in Rome Township, the story claimed, state records show that in November and December, the well accepted some 53,000 barrels of waste.

It's not clear, however, what the waste is that's being injected. One of the points of the NBC story was that the state doesn't seem to be doing much to monitor the chemical contents of the waste fluids – though some legislators are trying to tighten up the regulation process.

Fracking opponents have made much of the fact that waste from horizontal fracking may be highly toxic, but that the industry treats this information as a trade secret.

One local oil-and-gas producer, Athens attorney Chris Gerig, said a well owned by his company, PetroQuest, in Canaan Township, takes only brine produced from the company's own wells in Athens and nearby counties. None of this is fracking wastewater, Gerig said; instead, it's the brine that typically comes up any time you drill for oil and gas.

The volume of waste the well accepts "varies from month to month," Gerig said, and usually runs about 80 barrels.

"We're only doing our own water that we get from our own wells," he said. "This is not frack water… since we're not fracking any wells right now."

In March, state inspectors ran a "mechanical integrity test" on the PetroQuest well, which only happens when there's some sort of problem with the facility.

State records confirm Gerig's account of what led to the test: essentially, a "packer" at the bottom of the well tube showed a potential for failure, and had to be replaced.

Gerig said the packer is a kind of plug, which keeps wastewater that's pumped down the tube from coming back up inside the casing that surrounds the tube.

Though testing of the packer indicated a pressure change that signaled a possibility of failure, he said, the packer and tubing were replaced before this happened.

"There was no breach," Gerig said. He added that even if the state inspector had not spotted the potential problem, the company would have picked up on it and replaced the packer anyway.

A state report indicates that "new tubing (was) installed with (a) rebuilt… packer."


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