Ohio Striking a Balance
While I currently serve as a Technical Director of Natural Resources Management for BHE Environmental in Columbus, I had the opportunity to serve the State of Ohio through regulation of the State’s oil & gas, coal, and industrial minerals mining industries, as the Chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mineral Resources Management (DMRM; 2000-2006). During my 27 years of experience across Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, my mission as a regulator of energy resource extraction was to strike a balance between the protection of people and the environment with society’s need for economical and available energy resources. Responsible regulation requires agencies to enact the State’s environmental laws in a manner that manages those impacts consistent with community’s standards that it has adopted as laws and rules. Many people fail to recognize the important role that responsible regulation plays in striking a balance for the good of society.
However, in my experience, the Ohio oil & gas industry and the DMRM recognize this balance and strive to achieve it:
Industries provide a service to citizens when they acknowledge the policies communities have established and work to achieve the spirit of them. I found the Ohio oil & gas industry to represent a progressive industry that cooperated with state regulators and proactively communicated with policy makers to achieve the objectives of the State of Ohio. Importantly, I observed that the leading operators promoted a culture within the industry that supported compliance with state and federal standards to advance industry performance as responsible stewards of the environment. In the DMRM I also had the pleasure of leading a team of highly skilled, dedicated, and fair-minded regulatory scientists with advanced academic degrees that worked hard to achieve energy extraction in a safe, environmentally responsible manner.
A good example of the progressive, problem-solving culture exhibited by staff at the DMRM, and the regulated community in Ohio, is STRONGER (State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations). Many industries and regulators would fear a process organized by a not-for-profit organization that reviews a regulatory program with a team of oil and gas administrators from other states, EPA, industry, and environmental advocates. The DMRM and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association not only do not fear the program, but they embrace this peer review as a way of advancing scientifically sound, and responsible, process improvements to achieve better environmental regulatory results. Ohio’s program has been reviewed three times (1995, 2005, and 2010 with a focus on hydraulic fracturing). STRONGER reported Ohio has been able to adopt 80% of the review recommendations; a percentage that will increase when current regulatory reforms are completed. A good example is the recent landmark legislation, Senate Bill 165 that anticipated the effects of the Utica Shale industry and enacted changes to better protect water quality and increase inspection, among other things.
The Class II Underground Injection Control (UIC) program is another instance where Ohio regulators and industry were proactive. According to the U.S. EPA, the UIC program is the best way to ensure underground sources of drinking water are not contaminated by fluids produced from the extraction of oil and gas.
In the 1980’s Ohio enacted critical reforms to protect Ohio water, citizens, and environment from water pollution. When Ohio prohibited other forms of oil field wastewater disposal, the State sought primacy of the UIC regulatory program from the US EPA. By doing so, it enhanced the industry’s ability to comply with proper handling of wastewater produced in the development process via a closed loop system, therein preventing release of polluted water to the environment. The fore-thought has yielded benefits today, because UIC wells are now accepting hydraulic fracturing fluids from Ohio shale development. This forward thinking has allowed a solution other states have not developed for disposal of a new fluid source. Industry has utilized these wells for decades without significant incident and in so doing has protected the quality of Ohio’s underground drinking water sources and surface waters.
Utica Shale extraction is providing new opportunities and challenges. To meet this test, I see progressive industry leaders going beyond the minimum standards. While state standards require sampling to 300 feet, many companies sample all private water wells 1,000 or more feet to establish baseline conditions so they can respond to complaints with data. Drill pads have safety berms to minimize release of dust and dampen noise. Fences protect people and livestock from entering the development area. Erosion control programs use best management practices to prevent siltation of streams. In my capacity as an environmental consultant I now see the industry carefully siting gathering lines to avoid impacts to streams, wetlands, and other important resources whenever possible.
All development activities can create unintended consequences caused by a wide variety of factors, e.g. weather, equipment failure, human error, neglect, and more. In my experience with ODNR, when unintended consequence did occur, both the industry and the DMRM were quick to react, correct the program, and take measures to prevent future occurrences.
Recent unintended consequences have made the news with regard to earth tremors that are preliminarily believed to have been caused by UIC injection water lubrication of previously unknown deep faults in the earth’s crust. Another story in recent news relates to natural gas reported in a domestic water well. With literally tens of thousands of wells completed in Ohio, the laws of probability predict something will occasionally go wrong. How we as a society react to those errors in terms of problem analysis, problem prevention, and public policy determine if we are able to continue to strike a balance between our nation’s need for energy and protection of our people and natural resources. Based on my experience, I am confident Ohio government and industry will meet the challenge.