Not the Way to Go, Ohio

Every road trip needs a good theme song. A recent excursion for Earthworks’ Citizens Empowerment Project brought The Pretenders to mind:

I went back to Ohio, but my pretty countryside 

Had been paved down the middle, by a government that had no pride

The farms of Ohio has been replaced by shopping malls

Said A, O, Oh way to go Ohio…

That was then (the ‘80s) and this is now. Today’s farm replacement is the work of a different type of development. According to figures from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), the volume of shale oil and gas produced doubled between 2012 and 2013 and quadrupled between 2013 and 2014. That’s because in just a few years, 3,500 wells have been drilled or permitted in the Utica Shale (along with 70 Marcellus Shale wells).

Yet the government tasked with overseeing this meteoric development still doesn’t have pride—at least not on behalf of the people, land, water, and air that are being negatively impacted. As the videos Earthworks shot with our Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) camera clearly show, so-called normal operations at well sites and compressor stations are blowing health-harming emissions over farms and homes. 

Ohio seems to be on a fast track to more pollution, as the state becomes the nexus of a multi-state network of gas processing and gas-to-liquids plants and pipelines. But at the same time, the state is dragging its feet on industry oversight and accountability.

In 2013, new legislation directed ODNR to develop regulations on several aspects of the shale drilling industry. This July, ODNR finally issued the first set, on horizontal well site construction, which means that operators will now be required to actually put plans in place before breaking ground. 

But instead of codifying specific regulations, ODNR lazily provided a list of general industry standards to be “incorporated by reference.” The lack of detail about what operators are and aren’t allowed to do will make Ohio's insufficient inspection and enforcement activities even more difficult. ODNR also declined to develop any regulations related to waste storage or treatment at well sites, in effect allowing environmentally risky practices like brine storage and pit burial to continue without oversight. 

West Virginia University recently claimed that the Utica Shale could yield nearly 2000% more gas than the US Geological Survey’s 2012 estimate. But the study has little credibility due to a lack of supporting data and zealous multiplication of well production figures. It may mostly serve to lift the spirits of drillers now posting losses.  

As more Ohio residents document and speak out against impacts to water and air, it becomes possible to envision an end to the drilling free-for-all. If the state's leaders decide to change their energy policies, there could be a famous song one day about the places Ohio saved from frenzied development, rather than destroyed.