Energy and Earthquakes in Ohio

Published July 29, 2014

Ohio sits above the Utica and Marcellus shales, two geologic formations that have rich energy potential waiting to be unlocked by the process of hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking.” Increased energy production has the potential to be a powerful economic engine for unemployed Ohioans, but the debate over hydraulic fracturing has served to highlight the natural and political fault lines running through the state.

These fault lines have become most apparent near Youngstown, Ohio, an area that has felt two different sets of minor, fracking-related earthquakes, one in 2011 and one in the spring of 2014. The 2011 earthquakes are thought to be caused by disposing of wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process in deep underground injection wells (the same kind used for carbon capture and sequestration), and the 2014 quakes are thought to have been caused by the hydraulic fracturing process itself.

Despite these quakes, the residents of Youngstown have rejected bans on hydraulic fracturing three times within the last year, by double-digit or near-double-digit margins on each vote, dealing radical environmental groups a hat-trick of defeat in their quest to ban the practice. Youngstown residents have embraced hydraulic fracturing largely because the quakes were mild, Ohio regulators acted quickly and efficiently to take steps limiting future risks, and hydraulic fracturing has sparked an economic recovery in Rust Belt communities throughout the state. 

When most people think of earthquakes, they think of Hollywood-style earthquakes twisting bridges and splitting roads in two, but these are not the kind of tremors Youngstown experienced. The largest earthquakes felt in Youngstown in 2011 measured at 2.7 and 4.0 in intensity, and they resulted in zero injuries and no cases of verified damage. The largest of the 2014 quakes was a magnitude 3.0, which the US Geological Survey categorizes as a minor quake that produces vibrations similar to the passing of a truck. 

Not only were the quakes minor, but state regulators wasted no time in identifying the problems, shutting down activity directly contributing to the risk, and crafting new rules that have been applauded by the industry and environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense Fund. Among the new rules are requirements that companies install sensitive seismic monitors before drilling horizontally into rock formations within three miles of a known fault area or an area where seismic activity greater than 2.0 has occurred, and drilling must be suspended pending investigation when monitors detect seismic activity above magnitude 1. 

These safeguards and the sterling track record of Ohio regulators in dealing with oil-and gas-related earthquakes have given residents confidence that proper precautions will be taken to make sure hydraulic fracturing is done in an environmentally responsible way, while providing a huge economic stimulus in an area that has been trending downward for decades. 

In some ways, the Youngstown area is an unfortunate poster child for the term Rust Belt. The region lost more than 16,000 manufacturing jobs during the Great Recession, and the unemployment rate peaked at 12.9 percent in March of 2009. Now, hydraulic fracturing is starting to shake off some of that rust, as evidenced by the construction of a $1 billion steel plant by Vallourec, a French manufacturer of steel pipes for the oil and gas industry, which employs 350 people.

Additionally, a local pipefitters union, which reported 40 percent unemployment at the height of the recession only 41⁄2 years ago, reached full employment last year, and as the business manager of Local 396 states, “None of this would have been possible without the oil and gas industry.” This dramatic drop in unemployment led Local 396 to rally against the fracking ban in Youngstown, creating a rift between blue-collar workers and greens, two demographics that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates.

As more states seek to increase their economic opportunities by expanding their oil and natural gas industries, Ohio’s restrictions on wastewater injection wells and required mapping of geologic fault lines will likely serve as a blueprint for regulators in other states. But even if other states have fewer worries about natural geologic faults, the political ones will be sure to shake things up.

Isaac Orr ([email protected]) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute.