Ohio expects to triple the number of its oil and gas field inspectors, as horizontal drilling and fracking of shale formations intensifies and moves west across the state.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources wants to have 90 inspectors in the field by early next year, up from more than 30 today, spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans said.
State regulators are scrambling to keep up with Ohio’s latest energy push. They inspected 18 percent of the state’s 64,481 operating wells in 2011, leaving more than 50,000 wells unchecked.
“It’s almost a daunting task, but you gotta do the best you can,” said Gene Chini, district supervisor of the north region of the Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management.
Ohio has inspected a smaller share of its wells since 2009 than its neighbor in the shale boom, Pennsylvania. Ohio’s inspections also lagged those in three other big oil- and gas-producing states — Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma, though funding shortfalls in Oklahoma have cut inspection rates almost in half in recent years.
By Kari Matsko’s reckoning, hundreds of thousands of Ohio oil and gas wells go without annual inspections. Matsko, director of the People’s Oil and Gas Collaborative, a Lake County grassroots group, said the state has more than 275,000 wells when adding in those that are plugged or abandoned.
Some of them pose contamination danger, she said, pointing to a finding by federal investigators that natural gas in two residential water wells in Medina could have migrated from an abandoned gas well.
“Wells require a lifetime of care and feeding,” said Matsko. “They never go away.”
But others contend the focus most keenly belongs on wells under construction. Meanwhile, many existing wells are scant producers.
“Keep in mind that many of the 64,000 wells are classified as marginal wells that may produce less than 10 barrels of oil a year,” said Rhonda Reda, executive director of the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program, which does public outreach for the industry. “If you took those out of there, I think you would look at a very high rate of visits (inspections) for those that are producing significant volume.”
James Zehringer, ODNR director, said the agency has begun hiring and training additional inspectors to insure that shale wells are correctly built and inspected.
Natural gas and oil reserves in Ohio’s Utica shale formations have attracted a rush of major companies leasing rights to drill horizontal wells and then fracture, or “frack,” the rock to release the gas and oil. Sixteen horizontal wells have been drilled and completed; nine so far are in production.
Zehringer said money from permit fees for shale exploration and drilling will pay for new workers to help not only with inspections but also enforcement and administrative work.
“A strong regulatory staff at ODNR will enable inspectors to be present at every critical stage of well construction, insuring these sophisticated structures are built in a manner that protects both people and the ecosystem,” Zehringer said in a statement late Tuesday.
Chini, based in Uniontown in Summit County, said inspectors monitor new wells at critical points in their construction. They’re on site when the “conductor pipe” is installed in glacial drift or other loose surface material to keep gravelly layers from washing away and destabilizing the drilling rig.
They police installation of the “surface casing” that is cemented in place and protects groundwater. When available, they also monitor installation of the “production casing” that carries oil and gas out of the ground. And they monitor “frack jobs,” when water under intense pressure is forced into well bores to fracture the shale.
If there is a violation, they continue to visit a well until it’s corrected, Hetzel-Evans said.
Inspectors also check wells when they close and the well site is graded and reseeded.
The shale push has also turned a spotlight on some of Ohio’s old wells.
Landowners are asking inspectors to check wells that may have lapsed out of production. Property owners hope that happens because then they might be freed from old leases and able to negotiate new contracts that pay more per acre and have fatter production royalties.
“With the advent of this shale gas, the Utica play, we’re getting a lot of calls,” Chini said.