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Ohio agency says fracking-related activity caused earthquakes

By Kim Palmer

CLEVELAND (Reuters) - An Ohio state agency said on Friday there is evidence that the high-pressure injection of fluid underground related to fracking caused a series of Ohio earthquakes culminating in a New Year's Eve tremor in any area not known for seismic activity.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which overseas the oil and gas industry, said in a report that the state should pass a new law prohibiting drilling at what is called the Precambrian basement rock level (a depth that begins at 9,184 ft) and would require companies to "review existing geologic data" before drilling.

The agency also said it wants the state to require "continuous pressure monitoring systems with automatic shut-off" that monitor the pressure levels of injected waste fluids that would be controlled remotely by the state.

The report found "geological evidence" suggesting that high pressure fluid from a well near an underground fault caused a series of earthquakes in the Youngstown, Ohio area over the last year.

"A number of coincidental circumstances appear to make a compelling argument that the Youngstown earthquakes were induced," the report said.

Ohio has nearly 200 deep wells in 41 counties, 177 of those wells are used primarily for oil and gas waste disposal. Since 1983, more than 202 million barrels of oilfield fluids have been disposed of in Ohio, more than half of that is from out-of-state.

Five Youngstown area wells were placed under a drilling moratorium December 31, 2011 after a series of 11 earthquakes, increasing in intensity and culminating in a 4.0-magnitude quake New Year's Eve, were recorded in an area not known for seismic activity before. More than 4,000 reports throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and Canada were called in from people who felt the New Year's Eve quake. Those wells will remain shuttered, according to the report.

The wells are about 9,000 feet deep and are used to dispose of water from oil and gas wells. The process is related to fracking, the controversial injection of chemical-laced water and sand into rock to release oil and gas. Critics say that the high pressure injection of the liquid causes seismic activity.

Fracking has become a political issue in Ohio. Groups outside of Ohio, including a number of Super Political Action Committees (PACs), have spent millions of dollars on advertisements accusing incumbent Democratic U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of opposing the drilling and costing Ohio jobs. Brown faces a challenge in November from Ohio's Republican Treasurer Josh Mandel.

While the agency report does not draw a direct link from fracking to the earthquakes, it says that one of the "coincidental circumstances" is that all the earthquakes were less than a mile around the well. It also said the seismic activity began to increase after an energy company was given approval to increase the pressure of injections in March, 2011.

According to the report, D & L Energy Inc., (principal owner of Northstar Disposal Services) requested two increases in the maximum injection pressure in March and May of 2011 at Northstar 1, the well closest to the epi-center of the Youngstown quakes. Approval was given both times and the first quakes were recorded shortly after that.

Ohio's Republican Governor John Kasich has said he plans to introduce new energy regulation legislation that could include new taxes on out-of-state waste disposal.

Ohio disposal wells make up only one percent of the nearly 150,000 in the nation that dispose of 2 billion gallons of waste a day. Some estimates indicate that drilling could create at least 66,000 jobs in the state in the next few years and generate more than $400 million in new state and local taxes.

The Ohio agency will triple the staff of its oil and gas inspection and regulatory unit, from 50 to approximately 150 employees in order to handle the new regulations. Critics have questioned why the Ohio EPA doesn't handle the regulation of Ohio's gas and oil industry as it does in most states.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

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