Q: What is fracking?
A: Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as “fracking,” is a method of recovering or extracting natural gas from deep shale formations and has been used since the 1940s. The process of hydraulic fracturing involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and a variety of chemicals into horizontally drilled wells. The specific make-up and combination of chemicals used in fracking is a confidential and highly protected trade secret. When this combination of liquids is pumped into the well under extremely high pressure, it fractures the shale and allows the natural gas to flow from the fissures that the sand particles hold open. Ohio wells are commonly drilled between 7,000 and 10,000 feet deep.
Q: How commonly is the fracking process used?
A: Fracking is very common and widely used to extract natural gas across the United States, including natural gas wells in Appalachian states such as Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York. Several active natural gas wells in Ohio are currently being fracked. As exploration for natural gas continues, future fracking of natural gas wells in Ohio is extremely likely.
Q: Is fracking unreasonably dangerous?
A: A hotly contested dispute is currently being played out in the public media and courtrooms across the country. One side of the dispute maintains that fracking is a safe, effective and sophisticated method of extracting natural gas that will reduce our reliance on foreign energy sources. The other side describes it as an unreasonably dangerous process that is an assault on the environment and public health.
Across the country, claims have been brought in courtrooms to assert that the chemicals used in the fracking process contaminate ground water. There have also been claims that fracking causes air pollution and methane leakage from the drilled wells, and that it exposes well workers to unsafe chemicals.
Q: Are there federal laws or restrictions that address the environmental impact of fracking?
A: The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), originally enacted in 1974 and subsequently amended in 1986 and 1994, is the main federal law passed by Congress to ensure drinking water is free from both natural and man-made contaminates. This act authorizes the federal Environmental Protection Agency to set national health-based standards for drinking water. One of its primary purposes is to make sure groundwater is not polluted.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 (also known as the Bush/Cheney Energy Act) exempted natural gas drilling from the restrictions and standards in the Safe Drinking Water Act. This Energy Policy Act also excused companies using hydraulic fracturing from being forced to disclose the specific makeup or combination of chemicals used in fracking.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemical Act (FRAC Act) was introduced on June 9, 2009 in order to repeal these exceptions in the Energy Policy Act. The FRAC Act never became law, however, and the Energy Policy Act of 2005 remains in effect.
Q: Do any Ohio laws regulate or address the environmental impact of fracking?
A: Ohio’s laws are similar to, and in some ways broader than, the federal laws that apply to any environmental and health and safety impact resulting from fracking, including air pollution control and ground water contamination. Ohio laws do provide for citations and sanctions to be imposed for instances of pollution caused by fracking. Ohio’s current laws, however, have been criticized by some as inadequate to properly regulate the expansion of this burgeoning business in Ohio.
In the 130th session of the Ohio General Assembly (2013-2014), several bills have been introduced for consideration in both the Ohio House and Senate regarding fracking. Some of the proposed bills (S.B. 17 and H.B. 42) would require a well owner to submit more specific information and identification of any chemicals that will be used to stimulate a well before drilling starts. These proposed bills also call for better access to information regardign these chemicals for health care professionals and emergency responders where exposure to such chemicals may have occurred.
This “Law You Can Use” column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association. It was prepared by Cincinnati attorney Theresa Nelson Ruck of Sams, Fischer, Packard & Schuessler, LLC.