New Castle News

Closer Look

March 27, 2014

Our Opinion: What happens if shale gas operations cause earthquakes?

NEW CASTLE — The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has no plans to take any action regarding several recent earthquakes in Ohio.

And perhaps that is the proper move under the circumstances. The quakes, very minor in nature — and causing no reported damage — may be an isolated phenomenon of no great consequence.

But it is interesting to note they occurred near the site of an ongoing shale gas drilling and fracturing operation near Lowellville. It’s possible the quakes have nothing to do with the gas operation, but Ohio environmental officials were quick to order a halt to activities at the drilling site, in case there was a connection.

In other words, better safe than sorry.

The quakes are being investigated and we have no doubt geologists in Ohio will attempt to determine whether or not there is a link between them and the gas operation.

Even if it is determined the drilling site contributed to the quakes, it could be the incidents were a result of specific geologic factors in that area. After all, there have been plenty of these wells drilled in Pennsylvania, Ohio and elsewhere with no earthquakes associated with them.

On the other hand, there have been a few incidents in some parts of the country that suggest a link between fracking and quakes. It’s a matter that requires more investigation.

Officials with the DEP note they are observing the investigation into the Ohio quakes. That’s obviously necessary considering their close proximity to the commonwealth, just over the border from Lawrence County.

The larger question is: What happens if a link is found between drilling and the quakes? What will Pennsylvania and environmental officials do about it?

Such a scenario does not demand a moratorium on drilling and fracking. But it ought to prompt a more detailed assessment of geology where drilling takes place. It may need to be a factor when it comes to the safety of drilling.

Geologically, this is a relatively stable part of the country, although earthquakes occasionally occur. The ones that may be associated with shale operations appear to be very focused in nature, and the degree to which they present any safety or property risk is unclear.

It’s this uncertainty that demands attention by the DEP. In a report that appeared in yesterday’s edition of the New Castle News, concerns have been raised about the amount of radioactive rock that is being unearthed by drilling operations and whether or not state environmental officials are properly accounting for it.

Such reports raise questions about the state’s oversight of a major activity in the commonwealth, one that can impact the environment and public safety in multiple ways. The DEP and others in state government must ensure the public that proper oversight of drilling actually takes place.

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