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Company seeks local oil, gas

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Traffic was disrupted for several days last month on West Enon and North Fairfield Roads just north of Yellow Springs as a large truck took seismic readings of rock formations thousands of feet below the roadways. The disruption was part of a Michigan oil and gas company’s search for petroleum and natural gas deposits here, raising concerns among some area residents about whether a controversial drilling technique might eventually be used.

Geologists from West Bay Exploration Co., based in Traverse City, are in the midst of the initial testing of a six-county area, which includes Greene and Clark counties, identified as relatively unexplored and possibly containing oil and gas reserves. Over the summer, the company also tested along East Enon Road south of Yellow Springs High School, briefly entering the village.

When villager Vickie Hennessy found out about the oil and gas exploration in the area, she was alarmed at the potential use of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short, in which water and chemicals are injected at high pressure to break up rock and extract the oil and gas.

“It’s horrifying, it’s an environmental disaster and it’s not regulated,” said Hennessy, president of the Green Environmental Coalition. A major concern is the potential contamination of groundwater with oil and gas and with the chemicals used in the process.

If oil and gas are found in the area, West Bay Exploration would contact landowners to lease mineral rights, then begin more sophisticated testing such as three-dimensional seismic imaging and drilling test wells, a process which can take 18 months. Fracking would also take place at this stage of the process. Only about 1 percent of all explored areas end up producing wells.

“We may have to go to 10 different areas before we see an area that looks interesting, and maybe one out of 10 of those are successful,” said Gary Gottschalk, vice-president of West Bay Exploration, the 100th largest private producer of oil and gas in the country. “It’s really a long shot whether a particular area works out and whether you find something economic and productive.”

Across the nation, citizens, communities and environmental organizations have recently pushed for more regulation of fracking, which has been practiced for 50 years but has been increasingly used to produce gas deposited in deep underground shale using horizontal drilling. Last month, Pittsburgh banned fracking within city borders.

“The gas industry is using a lot of different practices that are untested, the safety of which are unproven, and the chemicals they are using are untested,” said Claire Sandberg, campaign director of Frack Action, a national advocacy group. “Communities across the country are scrambling trying to protect themselves from what is an increasing threat to our water, our air and our communities.”

However, Steve Opritza, a geologist in the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Mineral Resources Management, which issues drilling permits, maintains the practice is safe and that landowners and their neighbors are protected by strict state regulations that require adequate setbacks from buildings, locked gates on wells and tanks, steel casing within a well to isolate underground aquifers and cement plugs and restoration plans for spent wells, among other measures.

“It’s a closed system,” Opritza said of the fracking process, which goes down several thousand feet below underground aquifers. “There are a lot of horror stories but there has not been an instance of fracturing since the 1950s in Ohio, that has caused groundwater contamination,” he said.

If test wells in the area are successful, then West Bay Exploration would have to obtain a $500 drilling permit from Opritza’s division, which oversees oil and gas drilling in the state. Inspectors from the division are on-site during the installation of the steel casing and several other times during the process to ensure compliance.

Gottschalk said that the rules and regulations to protect groundwater are stringent and that West Bay Exploration, which operates mostly in the Great Lakes region, has wells on hospital grounds, golf courses and college campuses.

“The impact of oil and gas operations on the surface of the ground is so minimal compared to other industrial activities,” Gottschalk said. If any surface contamination does occur, the site would become a licensed landfill and the company would take the responsibility of clean up, as specified in mineral right leases, Gottschalk said. And because fracking takes place so deep and because shale is impermeable there is no chance of fracking contaminating groundwater or household water wells, he said.

“Fracking is just hydraulically pushing water into the rock formation to open it up to allow the natural gas to come out of the rock,” Gottschalk said. “Once you get down 50 or 100 feet you’re in pure bedrock — you virtually drill down into the center of a mountain.”

In Ohio, which is in the top half of oil and natural gas-producing states, 64,000 wells are currently in production, according to Opritza. However, little successful drilling has taken place in this area of the state. Recently a 3,300-foot deep test well dug in Ross Township in northeastern Greene County turned out to be dry. Most oil and gas exploration is taking place in the northeastern and eastern parts of the state, where larger oil companies like Chevron and Chesapeake Energy are beginning to lease land. The closest well-producing oil fields are in Pickaway County to the east, Opritza said.

If drilling took place on land in the Yellow Springs area, oil would be stored in on-site tanks and periodically trucked to nearby refineries while natural gas produced would be pumped directly into local utility pipelines to heat homes and businesses in the vicinity.

Despite the low chance of finding sufficient oil reserves in the area to warrant drilling and assurances from oil and gas companies and state regulators, township resident Ellen Duell said she is still worried about possible well water contamination and decreased property values. And she said she is upset that traffic was disrupted for the purpose of oil and gas exploration, though West Bay Exploration did get the necessary $25 permit from Greene County to stop traffic on roadways for several minutes during each test.

“Closing the road was not done for a good purpose — it was a for-profit company taking seismographic readings,” said Duell, who was among motorists forced to stop on West Enon Road a mile west of Lamont Road. “That made me a little angry because that was a private company and it was a public road.”

According to Sandberg there have been more than 1,000 cases of groundwater contamination from fracking across the country, including a well-known case in Bainbridge Township in northeast Ohio where a house exploded when natural gas from a well 1,000 feet away migrated into the home due to over pressurization of the well’s surface casing, investigators determined.

Sandberg also cites community concerns over water use, since four to nine million gallons of water are injected each time a well is fracked; wastewater pollution, since the water and chemical cocktail used in fracking is treated by conventional wastewater systems, and air pollution from open air wastewater pits. Of particular concern is that the chemicals used in the process remain undisclosed and that a federal loophole allows the fracking process to be exempt from Safe Drinking Water Act regulations, Sandberg said.

Since a 2004 Ohio law took away control over oil and gas drilling from local communities, many of which had ordinances restricting drilling, local citizens may have little recourse to keep oil and gas producers from coming into an area, provided the companies find willing landowners from whom to lease. Hennessy said she hopes to increase awareness of the dangers of fracking so landowners can make the right decision.

“I’m doubtful that most residents in Yellow Springs would lease their land for drilling, but the more aware, the better,” Hennessy said. “I’d rather see us invest our energy in alternative energy. Putting Ohio people at risk for this little amount of resource does not make sense.”

Gottschalk said that his company will work with landowners eager to lease their mineral rights.

“If you talk to the people we’re involved with, the farmers, they think we’re the greatest thing that’s ever come along,” he said.

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