Council hears more about fracking

Members of Marietta City Council’s lands, buildings and parks committee on Tuesday heard a presentation on the horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) process that would be used to extract natural gas from Utica shale beds located more than a mile below the surface in the Marietta area.

The city administration requested the presentation from Matt Lupardus, vice president of the Southeastern Ohio Oil and Gas Association (SOOGA), Bob Chase, chairman of Marietta College’s Petroleum Engineering Department, and Shawn Bennett with Energy In Depth, an oil and gas research, education and public outreach group.

Earlier this month the council members were approached by a local broker on behalf of Protege Energy III, a Tulsa, Okla.-based oil and gas company, about 35 acres of city property as part of a 6,000-acre block of surrounding lands that Protege wants to lease for a natural gas horizontal hydraulic drilling operation.

The company has offered to pay $4,750 an acre, plus a 17.5 percent royalty based on any product they would retrieve from the drilling operation.

But some council members have expressed concern that fracking could contaminate the city’s well fields located along the Muskingum River near the Washington County Fairgrounds and Indian Acres Park.

“The typical water well is drilled less than 150 feet, while a Utica shale well is down around 7,500 feet,” Lupardus explained. “There’s no way fracking nearly a mile and a half beneath the surface could affect your water table.”

He said construction of fracking wells are highly regulated in Ohio which requires multiple concrete and steel casings as extra protection against potential contamination of ground water.

“But if our aquifer should become polluted from this drilling process, how could we deal with that?” asked Councilman Tom Vukovic, D-4th Ward.

Lupardus noted the city’s drinking water wells are only 65 feet deep, far above the Utica shale beds where the hydraulic fracturing would occur.

“And the property the city is considering to lease is not part of that aquifer,” Chase added. “The city’s well fields are a great distance from that area.”

The city acreage Protege proposes to lease is located in the Goose Run Road area off Ohio 26 in Marietta Township, and near the Ohio River behind the Walmart and Lowe’s complex along Pike Street.

Chase said the company’s well pad would possibly be located on property north of the Marietta Country Club, which would be among the 200 area landowners from which Protege hopes to lease the 6,000-acre block of property.

From that location a well shaft would be drilled more than a mile below the surface, then horizontal shafts, about 7 inches in diameter, could be drilled up to another 7,500 feet in any direction to mine natural gas products from the shale bed.

“If the city decides to lease the property you can always ask for a no surface drilling clause so there would be no drilling pads located on city property,” Chase said.

Vukovic expressed concern that injection wells could be drilled within the city limits.

Brine, a chemical and water mixture left over from the fracking process, is stored in injection wells that are drilled thousands of feet underground.

“I’ve been part of many oil and gas well drilling leases, and none of them include injection wells,” Chase said.

Councilwoman Kathy Downer, D-at large, was not convinced that the city’s water sources would be safe from contamination if the fracking operations occurred.

“Can you put a price on the results of contamination?” she asked.

Lupardus assured her that Ohio’s highly-stringent regulation of horizontal hydraulic drilling requires multiple safeguards that protect the community’s fresh water resources.

But city safety-service director Jonathan Hupp noted whether the city chooses to lease the properties or not, the majority of surrounding landowners are planning to lease the mineral rights to their lands and would receive income from Protege.

He said leasing the city property and drawing any royalties from oil and gas production would provide a good source of revenue to support the municipal budget.

Hupp said the lease would generate an estimated $168,000 annually, plus any royalties based on the amount of product Protege obtains from the fracking process.

In other business Tuesday, city water superintendent Jeff Kephart told members of council’s water, sewer and sanitation committee that he did not believe the city should be spending more than $100,000 on a study to determine the one- to five-year travel time for potential pollutants to reach the city’s well fields.

But Councilman Mike McCauley, D-2nd Ward, who chairs the committee, said the $103,000 study, which would be performed by Bennett and Williams Environmental Consultants, Inc. of Westerville, is needed in order to develop a well field protection plan for the city’s drinking water wells.

Kephart said the money could be better used to replace city water lines or provide other services for the city’s 18,000 water customers, and noted the city should concentrate on legislation to protect the immediate area in which the nine wells are located.

That area includes the Washington County Fairgrounds, Indian Acres Park, and the Marietta Aquatic Center.

Kephart said the city should be working on an enforcement ordinance to protect the wells from contamination due to vehicles parking on the well fields or from potential spillage from trucks hauling hazardous materials along nearby Muskingum Drive.