Drilling inspectors needed: Ohio looks to hire as shale play spreads to more counties

By Alison Grant, The Plain Dealer

Ohio_frackingOhio 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.

Uniontown residents rallying against drilling proposal

Uniontown LandfillResidents unhappy about plans for an oil well on property across the street from the Industrial Excess Landfill are planning to storm Monday’s township trustees meeting.

Ohio Valley Energy, based in Youngstown, has applied for a permit to drill a directional well on property in the 12600 block of Cleveland Avenue NW. The land is on the east side of Cleveland Avenue. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which approves drilling permits, is reviewing the company’s request.

Residents are concerned about the location of the proposed well, because it’s across the street from the closed landfill. They are worried that drilling and hydraulic fracturing — a process used to break up buried rock formations — might occur close to the landfill.

Uniontown resident Elizabeth Dixon said she believes the proposed well is too close to the landfill, as well as residences and schools. Dixon said she’s not opposed to drilling, but believes it must be done carefully. She plans to tell the trustees about her concerns.

“I don’t think this is right,” Dixon said of drilling in residential areas. “We don’t need to risk the safety of my family or the families around us.”

Trustee Ellis Erb said the three-member panel will listen to residents, but he doubts the trustees can do much.

“That’s not ours to do,” Erb said, noting that ODNR reviews and issues drilling permits. “We have no control over drilling.”

The proposed well hopes to tap the Clinton Sandstone formation, which usually produces natural gas and oil. There are nearly 3,000 natural gas and oil wells in Stark County, including several in the Uniontown area, and most tap the Clinton sandstone.

But while oil companies have been drilling in the area for more than 100 years, interest has increased as new companies try to access the Utica shale formation. Companies use horizontal drilling to reach the shale and hydraulic fracturing to break up rock and release trapped gas, oil and other hydrocarbons. Hydraulic fracturing involves forcing a slurry of water, sand and chemicals into the well to break up the shale.

Horizontal wells are much larger than the directional and vertical wells that have been drilled here. The hydraulic fracturing process for a horizontal well uses about 5 million gallons on fluid, compared with less than 300,000 gallons used in a traditional well.

If Ohio Valley Energy receives the permit, the company hopes to begin drilling later this year or early next year, spokesman Ben Funderberg said. The well will be more than 4,000 feet deep and directed south. It will be more than 500 feet from the road.

The company operates 450 wells in northeastern Ohio, including some in Stark County. It also holds interest in another 500 Ohio wells.

Springfield trustees passed a motion to authorize Summit County Action

Springfield TWP, Ohio —

Trustees passed a motion to authorize the Summit County engineer, as the township engineer, to perform engineering duties and find funding for the Tritts Mill Pond Dam, which would meet the compliance and time lines of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) notice of violation.

Trustee Dean Young said during the Sept. 8 meeting the township received a notice of violation from ODNR pertaining to repairs needed on the dam. The engineering staff inspected the dam Aug. 12 after the lake drain had been opened part way to help alleviate flooding upstream during heavy rains. The ODNR report stated that the dam was in very poor condition and is being operated and maintained in violation of state dam safety laws.

Trustees approved a motion Aug. 11 stating the dam lake drain to be open with the intention to allow more overflow room during heavy rains. Richard Kaylor, road superintendent, opened the drain Aug. 12.  Kaylor said on July 17 6.25- inches of rain fell in a two hour time period, which caused flooding to several businesses up stream.

ODNR engineers observed conditions including insufficient spillway capacity to safely pass 25 percent of the probable maximum flood, spillway system is severely undermined and deteriorated with severe erosion on the downstream slope and no emergency action plan or operations, maintenance and inspection manual. They required remediation to bring the dam into full compliance with Ohio’s dam safety laws.

Some residents living along the now dry, muddy area known as Tritts Mill Pond would like to see it refilled.  The first step slated in making the repairs is to investigate funding, which is what the trustees are doing by passing the motion to authorize the county engineer to perform the engineering duties and seek funding.

Resident Howard Hartley asked the trustees what residents should expect at the Tritts Mill Pond.

Kaylor said they do not have answers themselves at this point.

Trustee Bruce Killian said for now it is being left open for temporary relief on the dam.

Young said it’s the intent of trustees to hold a meeting with county officials. Interested property owners could sit in on the meeting.

The board directed Police Chief John Smith to formulate a plan to increase enforcement of rules of safety on Springfield Lake and report the same to the trustees by Dec. 1.

The report would include recommendations for any action required by the trustees.

Residents attending the Aug. 11 meeting ask for increased patrol due to the potential for accidents as boaters were not following the posted rules.

Resident Lloyd McVey thanked the board and Smith for their attention to the issues.

Other business included:

  • Approved a purchase order for $57,053.53 for the Township’s share of the Summit County Engineer’s Pavement Maintenance Program for 2011. As a part of this program the township was able to save time and costs.
  • Expenditure out of the Parks budget is not to exceed $10,000, one half will be reimbursed by a grant from the Ohio Erie Canalway Coalition, for examination of title, survey or environmental assessment of areas for development of potential hike and bike trails. Results of the title examination would be provided to the Board before proceeding.
  • Authorization to pay the townships fair share, $1,500 to Metro SWAT for the purchase of an armored vehicle. Lakemore will pay $500 for their share and Springfield $1,000.
  • Approval of repair costs for dump truck in the amount of $1,428.83.