DISPATCH SPECIAL REPORT
KYLE ROBERTSON DISPATCH The six injection wells on John and Elizabeth Neider’s Carroll County farm use water carried through a pipeline over several miles from a reservoir on another farm.
Is there enough water for ‘fracking’ boom?
Some landowners, groups worry that drilling for oil and gas will drain Ohio wells, reservoirs
By Spencer Hunt THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
CARROLLTON, Ohio — A deep, constant hum emanates from John and Elizabeth Neider’s dairy and sheep farm. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either the sound of progress or a harbinger of environmental disaster. The hum is created by a cluster of powerful pumps forcing millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into six deep wells.
- As much as 5 million gallons of water per well are needed to shatter the Utica shale and release the natural gas and oil trapped thousands of feet underground.
It’s a process that’s likely to be repeated in eastern Ohio thousands of times over the next few years, and Carroll County residents will have front-row seats.
The state has issued permits to drill as many as 161 wells in Carroll County. It’s the most-concentrated cluster of such wells on a growing list of permitted well sites that cover 21 counties. If every well is drilled in Carroll County, companies will use as much as 805 million gallons of water to free the oil and gas. Across Ohio, as many as 2,250 Utica wells could be drilled by the end of 2015, according to state estimates.
Critics say that drilling and “fracking” pose a pollution threat to streams and groundwater. Industry officials say the process is safe. As that debate continues, the industry’s water consumption has grown into an issue of its own.
The change alone in Car-roll County is huge. A Dispatch analysis of state water-use records shows that the county’s mineral-extraction industry, which includes drilling, used 3.5 million gallons of water in 2010.
That year, Carroll County residents, farms and businesses drew 378.7 million gallons of water from the ground, lakes and streams.
Where will these companies get the water they need?
“I told them we were dry this spring,” John Neider said about a conversation he had with the drilling company when it considered using his creek for fracking water. “Our creek is pretty much dry.” Drilling-industry and state officials insist there’s plenty of water for everybody.
“There’s 30 trillion gallons of precipitation that falls on Ohio each year,” said Heidi Hetzel-Evans, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
Most heavy industries that need water, including power companies, locate their plants and mills next to large lakes and rivers. That’s not an option for the drilling industry.
Companies must get their water from wells or other water sources and either pump it to drilling sites in pipelines or drive it there in tanker trucks.
An analysis of state groundwater maps shows that the aquifers in 12 counties in the Utica shale region produce a maximum of 5 gallons of water per minute. That’s enough to supply a single house.
With the possibility of drilling more than 2,000 wells in the next three years, drilling companies are increasingly signing contracts with counties, cities, townships and regional agencies to draw water from public reservoirs and lakes.
A flood of requests
At least a dozen oil and gas companies have filed requests with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District to buy water from six reservoirs in eastern Ohio.
Officials delayed plans to begin selling water for fracking after residents objected earlier this year. They are now awaiting a U.S. Geological Survey study of the Atwood, Leesville and Clendening reservoirs to determine how much water can be sold off without harming the environment or recreation.
“We expect something by the end of the year,” said Sean Logan, the district’s conservation chief.
In September, however, the district board approved selling water for fracking from its Piedmont and Clendening reservoirs during their fall “drawdown stage.”
The drawdown releases more than 6 billion gallons of water from both lakes to increase storage capacity for thawed snow and ice during winter months. Officials said the amount of water oil and gas companies need for drilling is a small fraction of the drawdown.
The district’s plans face strong vocal opposition from the Southeast Ohio Alliance to Save Our Water, an advocacy group.
“We can see that from some of the conversations that (district officials have) had that they are just looking for reasons to justify what it is they want to do,” said Leatra Harper the group’s leader. “We have hydrologists who say they don’t understand the concept of excess water.”
Cows, crops and wells
While government groups are debating water sales, oil and gas companies are signing agreements with private landowners to buy access to their wells and ponds.
Since January 2011, shale-drilling companies and fracking contractors have registered at least 62 water withdrawals in 16 counties.
State law requires companies to register with the state if they intend to take more than 100,000 gallons a day from a pond or stream in the Ohio River basin. Companies that take at least 2 million gallons a day must get a state permit.
In Carroll County, the fracking operation at the Neiders’ farm is fed by a pipeline that snakes north for miles across several properties to a reservoir on another farm. A well there helps supply the reservoir.
The drilling company, Chesapeake Energy, says a lake on yet another farm also provides water for its fracking operation there.
“They paid us so much a foot for laying it on top of the ground,” John Neider said of the pipeline. “It’s supposed to be temporary.”
Paul Feezel, the leader of a group called Carroll Concerned Citizens, said he fears that these companies could drain water that farmers use for drinking and livestock. He mentioned the Chesapeake water well as a potential threat.
“The issue people have in this area is the amount of water that is in that aquifer,” said Paul Feezel, one of the group’s founders. “If you start taking that out, at what point would it start impacting the other landowners in the area?”
Chesapeake Energy responded with a written statement that said the well provided, at most, one-tenth of the water used at the Neiders’ farm.
The company says it also works with government agencies to “ensure that water use for deep-shale gas development is consistent with water-use plans and does not adversely affect other users.”
What about droughts?
Feezel said he’s also concerned about the fracking industry’s impact on streams, especially during typically dry summer months and droughts.
He said that state regulations don’t offer strong protections.
Ohio “doesn’t stop people from taking more. It just asks them to report on where they are taking the water,” he said. “If someone upstream says, ‘Sure, you can have all this water,’ and they pump a creek dry, it will be interesting to see what happens downstream.”
Mike Hallfrisch, the water inventory and planning supervisor with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the law entitles landowners to a “reasonable” use of water that runs across their land. It doesn’t allow any one landowner to take all of the water.
“If (companies) damage someone downstream, they can be sued,” Hallfrisch said.
Kristin Meyer, the clean-water program director for the Ohio Environmental Council, said the state should create limits up front.
Hallfrisch said his office monitors stream-flow gauges and ground-water levels and advises drilling companies to avoid drawing water during dry or drought conditions.
However, the state can’t stop a company from drawing the water. But companies could risk fines for harming wildlife in a dewatered stream.
Despite residents’ concerns, Hallfrisch said that even during the dry spring and summer, there was no incident in which a drilling company drained a stream.
“There’s enough water to go around,” he said. email@example.com
Utilities actually using less water as plants close
By Spencer Hunt THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
It takes a lot of water to make power.
Ohio’s coal-fired power plants, which produce nearly 90 percent of the state’s electricity, used 2.7 trillion gallons in 2010, mostly to help cool steam used to turn turbines and generate electricity. How much water is that? Nearly 78 percent of the 3.4 trillion gallons that Ohio households, farms, businesses and industry used that year.
That thirst, however, is on the wane. In 2000, for example, power plants used 3.2 trillion gallons. Industry officials attribute that to the recession, which has reduced demand for electricity. Less electricity means less coal and less water is needed. “It’s a direct correlation to how much power you produce,” said Mark Durbin, spokesman for Akron-based FirstEnergy.
Power companies will take even less water in years to come as more old coal-fired generators close in the face of tougher federal clean-air regulations. The biggest changes will come in 2015, when new limits on mercury and other toxic air pollutants take effect.
KYLE ROBERTSON DISPATCH Like other coal-fired power plants, the Cardinal plant on the Ohio River draws water to cool steam after it is used to turn the turbines. The steam then condenses back to water.
American Electric Power plans to retire its Picway plant, a generator at its Conesville Plant and four of its Muskingum River plant generators by June 2015. And FirstEnergy says it will retire generators at four power plants along Lake Erie while Duke Energy will shut down its Beckjord station near New Richmond.
Together, these plants used 978.8 billion gallons of water in 2010.
Industry officials are quick to point out that most of the water that power plants draw in is returned to streams and lakes, but usually much warmer. Melissa McHenry said that AEP has had to cut back generation at plants along the Muskingum River when stream levels were low in order to avoid overheating the stream and harming wildlife. “It’s typically not a problem ever on the Ohio River,” McHenry said. firstname.lastname@example.org @CDEnvironment