Land & Environmental

Oil company drilling OK’d

Oil drilling may soon begin just outside Yellow Springs as a Miami Township couple recently gave an out-of-state oil and gas company permission to drill on their 61-acre property on West Yellow Springs-Fairfield Road. Ralph and Melanie Acton signed a lease agreement with West Bay Exploration of Traverse City, Mich., which now intends to drill an exploratory well on the property about two miles northwest of Yellow Springs, West Bay Vice President Pat Gibson said last week.

Like two lease agreements signed in southern Greene County last year, the Acton’s lease contains a provision forbidding West Bay from using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which water and chemicals are injected into deep shale formations to release natural gas. The practice is usually combined with horizontal drilling.

Over the last year area residents have expressed concern that fracking might contaminate groundwater with cancer-causing chemicals, hydrocarbons and radioactive materials. Village Council passed a resolution calling on the state to put a moratorium on fracking.

West Bay officials have said that they will not frack the reservoirs because they are searching for oil, not natural gas, and because the local formations are already naturally fracked.

“We’re a conventional oil company not looking for shale gas and we do not frack,” Gibson said. He added that the scale of the local project will be much smaller than many hydraulic fracturing operations, requiring equipment similar in size to that used in drilling commercial water wells.

However, environmentalists and area residents continue to worry about potential water pollution and the nuisance of oil drilling and are encouraging neighbors to have their water tested before drilling begins.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen to the water — it seems risky to the aquifer,” said Vickie Hennessy of the Green Environmental Coalition. Hennessy added that Yellow Springs’ water, however, wouldn’t likely be affected because the village’s municipal wells are too far away and located in a separate aquifer.

“It would be a good idea for anyone who is concerned to have their water tested because you don’t have a baseline if you don’t have your water tested,” said Miami Township resident Laura Skidmore, who lives on property next to the Actons.

West Bay Exploration began seismic testing of a six-county area in late 2010. In early 2011, landowners in Miami Township north of Yellow Springs received lease agreements from West Bay and visits from field agent Jim Bucher. In April, Skidmore found a binder in her yard containing what appeared to be a field agent’s guide advising agents to use misleading arguments in seeking leases. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office investigated at the request of three state legislators but found no evidence that the binder belonged to an oil company or was used to mislead ­homeowners.

West Bay continues to seek leases in the area and will soon seek a state permit to drill an exploratory, or wildcat, well on the Acton property, to determine the viability of further drilling. Company representatives will also return to complete more seismic testing along area roadways. West Bay has also leased 293 acres south of Xenia for exploratory drilling.

“An exploratory well just means there’s no existing production for miles around so it’s high risk from a financial standpoint,” Gibson explained.

Though the Acton lease has yet to be filed at the Greene County Recorder’s Office, the leases south of Xenia offer the landowner an upfront payment of $6,000 per acre for the well site in addition to royalties of one-eighth the income generated from any well drilled on the property. The Acton’s declined to comment on their decision to lease their property.

Local geologist Peter Townsend said in interview last year that the company would likely only do conventional oil drilling — and not gas fracturing — in the Yellow Springs area. Townsend, a former Antioch College geology professor, said that the company is looking for oil contained in large underground caves within the Trenton-Black River formation, which is locally about 1,400 feet deep and extends into Michigan. Since 2008 West Bay has drilled 40 oil wells in the formation, mostly in Jackson County in southern Michigan.

Though natural gas is not abundant in the Trenton-Black River, small quantities of gas are often released during oil production. That gas would be sent directly into local utility pipelines to heat homes and businesses in the vicinity. Oil produced would be stored on-site in tanks and periodically trucked to nearby refineries. Brine, or water used during the drilling process, would also be stored on-site in tanks rather than open pits, Gibson said.

Before drilling, West Bay will first need a permit from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management, which oversees oil and gas drilling in the state. That permitting process can take up to 21 days. Because the vertical well will reach a depth of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet, a 10-acre drilling unit and setbacks of at least 230 feet from a neighboring property not signed onto a lease are required.

Vanessa Pesec of the Cleveland-based Network for Oil & Gas Accountability and Protection, or NEOGAP, which organized a no-fracking event here last year, said that although a vertical oil well is better than a horizontal gas well that is fracked, there are still contamination concerns.

“Is it better, yes, there is less truck traffic with conventional wells and fewer chemicals, but I would tend to be more cautious and say it needed to be looked at carefully,” Pesec said. With one-quarter of all oil wells drilled in the state in recent years located in urban areas, problems with neighbors have arisen, she said. The noise of drilling and squeaky pump jacks has been a nuisance and storage tanks have leaked due to mechanical or human error. Because of those concerns, NEOGAP has recommended state setback requirements of at least 1,000 feet.

Officials at the ODNR’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management contend that the current setbacks are adequate and leaks and accidents are rare. Inspectors from the division are on-site an average of three to five times during the construction of a well, including when installing the cement surface and production casings, which isolates the well from the aquifer, in order to make sure safety and environmental protections are in place.

“For the most part there are no problems as long as [the wells] are constructed properly,” said Mike McCormick, the head of ODNR’s permitting division. The protection of freshwater is the number one priority of the division, McCormick added, and said a new legal requirement approved last September that requires wells to be at least 50 feet away from a body of water will help the division do so. The biggest concern of neighbors has been the noise associated with the drilling process, McCormick said. Gibson said the noise of drilling is similar to any construction project, and that concerns of those with residential lots are common.

“That’s always going to be an issue between smaller landowners and larger farmers,” Gibson said. “Farmers have enough room but when you have a residential lot, you feel differently.”

 

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