Ohio state regulators announced tough new regulations on Friday after concluding that the injection of wastewater underground as part of the controversial gas-drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" had almost certainly caused a dozen earthquakes near one well.
The regulations will require well operators to supply extensive geological data before requesting a new drill site, avoid certain rock formations, and keep track of pressure, volume, and the chemical makeup of all drilling water using state-of-the-art technology.
Investigators pointed to "a number of coincidental circumstances" connecting the quakes in northeast Ohio, which began in March 2011 and continued to the end of the year, with a well which had begun operation three months earlier. They also noted the presence of a fault in the rocks that was identified only after drilling began.
The quakes clustered around the city of Youngstown and ranged from magnitude 2.1 to 4.0, with the largest one, on December 31, causing Ohio Governor John Kasich to place a moratorium on drilling at certain locations.
Quakes in other locations have previously been blamed on fracking, the most notable being a 4.7 quake in Arkansas on February 27, 2011.
"Our evidence strongly suggests that the injection fluid lubricated a previously unmapped fault and contributed to seismic activity," a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources explained. "It was an unfortunate situation, and the operator drilled the well to specifications and operated within all permitted levels."
Environmental groups are planning to ask the state for a public forum on the issue. However, the company which operates the well, D&L Energy, objected to the report, insisting that there is "no reason to rush and accept bad or incomplete science." It noted that the Ohio investigation had not tested the well itself and stated that it is currently awaiting the results of two separate studies of its own.
The fracking process involves injecting chemical-laced water into the earth at high pressure. Much of this water comes back up in a heavily contaminated state and has to be disposed of again by being injected deep underground. Ohio has been disposing of much of the wastewater produced by fracking operations in Pennsylvania, where there are fewer locations in which that sort of deep injection is possible, so the new regulations are likely to impact operations in both states.
Photo in public domain, via Wikimedia Commons