Ohio’s oil and gas resources have caught the attention of drillers, investors and political leaders alike. Thanks to aprocess known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), and a move to horizontal drilling (as opposed to traditional vertical wells) oil and gas trapped deep under the surface can be extracted in sufficient volumes to make drilling in layers of shale deep below the ground economically feasible.
Geologists estimate that the amount of natural gas trapped in the shale rock beneath Ohio could be enough to fuel the state for 21 years.viii Industry estimates place the size of the natural gas reserve at 20 trillion cubic feet. Similarly, the potential to recover oil from Ohio’s shale has
drawn industry insiders to remark that the Utica shale may represent one of the biggest domestic oil finds in 40 years, with state estimates ranging as high as 5.5 billion barrels of oil.ix
Ohio’s shale resources are trapped in two main geologic formations, the Marcellus and the Utica. Both span an area beneath several north eastern states, Lake Erie and southeastern Canada. The Marcellus was the first to capture the attention of oil and gas exploration companies, with most of the early focus on natural gas recovery from the Marcellus shale under Pennsylvania. More recently, companies have set their sights on Ohio’s Utica shale, located deeper below the earth than the Marcellus, but curving upward so steeply that under portions of Ohio, the shale is within 2000 feet of the surface, making the oil and gas trapped within the rock easier and cheaper to obtain. Ohio’s shale resources are also of interest because of early indications that it contains a mixture of natural gas, oil and other liquids, making drilling more economically worthwhile, even if natural gas prices continue to decline.
A shale boom like the one predicted to occur in Ohio can have a large impact on communities. As energy companies start to drill throughout Ohio, Ohio’s oil and gas-rich areas will experience an influx of workers, including large numbers of workers from out of state. Heavy equipment on local roads may cause damage and increase maintenance expenses. Pollutants and dust may contaminate the air. Lessons learned from the experiences of other states could prove valuable to Ohio as it moves forward with fracking.
Road and transportation maintenance have been especially hard hit by the Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania, and increased drilling activity is expected to have a similar impact in New York. In Northern Pennsylvania, traffic from heavy trucks and equipment, traveling to the state’s Marcellus shale, have caused extensive damage to the roads.
A spokesperson for the District 3 Office of the Pennsylvania State Department of Transportation said: "Our roads are taking quite a beating," he said. "This is really new territory for us. We've never seen this kind of widespread, all-at-once wear and tear that our roads are now experiencing.”
In New York, a memo from the New York Department of Transportation revealed that “Pavement structural damage done by the passage of a single large truck is equivalent to that done by about 9,000 automobiles.”xi Areas with heavy drilling are expecting 1.5 million heavy truck trips annually and could see an increase in peak hour trips by 36,000 trips per hour. A similar impact can be expected in Ohio. This type of traffic—on rural roads that aren’t designed for such loads— will quickly result in expensive maintenance costs.
But the impact of the oil and gas drilling boom extends far beyond infrastructure. In Northern Pennsylvania, local businesses, hotels and restaurants have benefited from the large number of out of state workers and their spouses.
This influx has also created problems. Oil and gas workers, who frequently receive rental stipends from the energy companies, often secure rental housing and live in mobile homes, hotels and apartments. The increased demand for housing has driven up rent in rural areas, which, in turn, has displaced many long-time residents. Areas that saw few homeless people have experienced a sudden increase in family homelessness and in families doubling or tripling up in their living quarters.
“Abby Thorborg, vice president of the shelter group and the county's part-time housing specialist, said the arrival of gas workers with generous housing allowances made a small homelessness problem much worse. She's seen 134 families in her office this year, up from 17 in 2008. She estimates 75 percent of Tioga residents with nowhere to live were displaced by gas workers.”xii
The demand for social services, too, has spiked throughout Northern Pennsylvania. Officials report that communities have had to deal with more people, more social service referrals and more crime.
“Police calls for service in Bradford County, which has more Marcellus wells than any other county in the state, are up 25 percent this year, The Associated Press reported. Drunken-driving arrests rose 60 percent last year.” xiii
While hydraulic fracturing may be a relatively common drilling technique that is beginning to be used in many locations across the U.S., the health risks associated with it remain unknown. In Colorado, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) tested 14 drilling sites in 2008 for possible air pollutants and found higher than average levels of cancer-causing chemicals that the Agency suggested could be cause for concern in the future.
“Fifteen contaminants were detected at levels the federal government considers above normal. Among them were the carcinogens benzene, tetrachloroethene and 1,4-dichlorobenzene. The contamination fell below the thresholds for unacceptable cancer risk, but the agency called it cause for concern and suggested that as drilling continued, it could present a possible cancer risk in the future.”xiv
In at least one documented example, a family in Pennsylvania who had been exposed to fracturing chemicals had developed rashes and blisters in their noses and throats. Family members asked doctors to draw blood samples to test for chemicals associated with the hydraulic fracturing process. The doctors reported finding high levels of arsenic, toluene, and benzene, chemicals found near other gas well sites.xv