Fracking in Wayne National Forest
After a 3.0-magnitude earthquake struck Wayne National Forest, all hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations have been halted. Although the earthquake’s epicenter was not within any of the forest’s parcels recently leased for fracking operations, it was located in and near parcels that have been requested for future lease opportunities by private drilling companies. Moreover, within 20 miles of the epicenter, four wastewater injection wells thrust high-pressure fracking wastewater into the ground. In 2016, those wells injected 350 million gallons of fracking wastewater. Multiple fracking sites are set up within five miles of the earthquake’s epicenter.
This most recent earthquake seems to be part of a trend in certain eastern Ohio counties, such as Monroe County, which have been increasingly affected by earthquakes and are also home to the greatest number of fracking operations.
Contentious from the Start
Environmental groups and other concerned citizens are speaking out, arguing that these sorts of issues were precisely what they warned about in 2015 and 2016 prior to the approval of fracking in Wayne National Forest.
The initial approval of fracking rights was very contentious. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management agreed to open the forest for oil and gas exploration after an Environmental Assessment study found that drilling would “have no significant impact on the environment.” In the report, it was noted that “The Project does not violate any known federal, state, local or tribal law or requirement imposed for the protection of the environment.”
However, opponents called the Environmental Assessment a “shoddy, inadequate document not even worthy of a high school science report.” These opponents argue that “National forests are public lands that are meant to be enjoyed by all” and that “If we open it to fracking it seriously limits residents’ ability to use the land for hunting, fishing and hiking.” Moreover, they claim that fracking is “bad for wildlife, bad for recreation and bad for the health of Ohio’s only national forest.”
Speaking from the other side of the issue, proponents of fracking such as Shawn Bennett, the executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, noted that fracking was a “huge step forward” for private landowners adjoining the national forest. He suggested that property owners who leased their mineral rights will be able to receive bonus and royalty payments for their lands. He claimed that “It would be an assault on the people of Appalachia if they did not allow them to lease their land and monetize their minerals.”
The Economics of Fracking
Bennett’s advocacy of fracking fits well with overall economic trends. It has been suggested that because of the U.S. expansion of fracking operations across the country, energy prices have stabilized globally. It is estimated that because of fracking, natural gas prices are about 47% lower than what they otherwise would have been. Because natural gas can be used for heating, electricity, and transportation, the decline in cost has generally affected most everyone in the country.
In Wayne National Forest, which expands across 12 Ohio counties near the cities of Athens, Marietta and Ironton, there is about 834,000 acres of land, most of which is privately owned. Largely as a result of the expansion of fracking operations since 2016, certain areas such as Carroll County have been transformed from “ghost towns” to “boom towns”. The leasing of mineral rights has allowed some farmers to keep their land.
Fracking and Water Contamination
Hydraulic fracturing is used to gain access to reserves of natural gas, petroleum, and other fossil fuels that are deep underground; usually around 7,000 feet below the surface. Wells are drilled straight down and then ‘veins’ are drilled horizontally off the main vertical well. These veins are then pumped full of water and chemicals at an extremely high pressure, which creates fractures in the rock, releasing the resources from the rock pores. These natural resources are then pumped back to the surface, along with (some of) the water and chemicals used in the process.
Fracking uses a significant amount of water which is mixed with various potentially hazardous chemicals such as ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), methanol, hydrochloric acid, and formaldehyde. Many of these chemicals are known carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and eight of the chemicals used “raise red flags for being toxic to mammals.”
Although the hazardous chemicals only make up 0.5-2.0% of the total fluid volume, because of the amount of water regularly used, this means a single fracking operation will uses anywhere from “80 to 330 tons of chemicals.” Moreover, studies indicate that only between 30-70% of the fluid is actually removed after use.
The solution that remains, or that is put back into the ground as part of a wastewater disposal process, can contaminate groundwater. One study of private wells near Arlington, TX found that the closer the well was to the fracking site, the higher the levels of contaminants commonly used in fracking operations (Peterson 2013).
Additionally, the natural gas itself can contaminate the groundwater. When high levels of methane build up in the water it can become flammable (Biswas & Kircherr 2013).
Fracking and Climate Change
Proponents of fracking often note the environmental benefits of natural gas over alternative fossil fuels. In the time since fracking operations have picked up, carbon dioxide emissions have not risen as significantly as originally predicted.
Moreover, the greater use of natural gas for electricity commonly trades off with coal. Although unburned methane is 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, it burns significantly cleaner than either coal or oil, producing about 45% less carbon dioxide.
What the Neighbors Say
Fracking opponent Bonie Bolen, of Marietta, notes that many of the residents around Wayne National Forest obtain their drinking water from natural springs or underground wells that adjoin the forest land.
Some of these residents are particularly concerned about the impact on their health. This is a common concern people express when they are asked about potential fracking operations near them.
It was these sorts of concerns from locals and other concerned parties that led to petitions bearing more than 97,000 signatures and more than 17,000 submitted comments in the run up to the original leasing of extraction rights in 2016. There were also protests both in Columbus and at one of the Ranger Stations in Wayne National Forest. But, of course, the land was leased anyway.
The temporary halting of all fracking operations has provided the government and local community to reassess fracking operations in Wayne National Forest. Ultimately, they will need to decide whether to allow operations to restart or once again close Wayne National Forest to fracking.
- This case contains information originally found in: “Fracking rights to SE Ohio’s Wayne National Forest go on auction Tuesday”, Cleveland.com; Brett Williams: “Ethical Issues with Hydraulic Fracturing”; and Dylan McCourt: “An Ethical Dilemma within the Fracking Industry”. ↵
- Destructive earthquakes usually start at around 5.5 magnitude ↵