COLUMBUS -- Ohio is leading a group of drilling states working with seismology experts from energy companies, government agencies and universities across the U.S. on how best to detect and regulate human-induced earthquakes. The initiative follows Ohio's discovery in April of a probable link between the drilling practice called hydraulic fracturing and five small tremors in eastern Ohio, a first in the Northeast.
In 2012, Gov. John Kasich halted disposal of fracking wastewater surrounding a well site in the same region after a series of earthquakes later tied to a deep-injection well. The company that ran the well has disputed the link.
Ohio Oil & Gas Chief Rick Simmers said in an Associated Press interview that state regulators are seeking up-to-date information so they can develop appropriate detection procedures and regulatory practices.
"I think we're being proactive in some ways," he said. "We're not waiting until something bad happens. We're trying to figure out how to, in a regulatory sense, address this rather than waiting."
Simmers said a dozen states, including Ohio, Texas and Oklahoma, showed up at the first meeting of the State Induced Seismicity Work Group Members last month. Also in attendance were representatives of the Groundwater Protection Council, the state-led Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and research institutions such as Stanford University, the University of Southern California and the University of Texas.
This week, a second meeting was arranged that will be expanded to additional interested parties, he said.
"What we're seeing is states are seeing an increase in (seismic) activity," Simmers said. "Then we have to take a step back and say which of these events are anthropogenic," or human-induced.
Ohio environmental activist Teresa Mills said putting a stop to fracking is the most effective way to halt the quakes. She said the known link has already been established.
"You can't regulate away an earthquake. That's the silliest thing I've ever heard," said Mills, of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. "You can stop man-made earthquakes by not doing what's causing them."
But Simmers said regulators don't believe it's that simple. He said the uptick in measured earthquake activity could be resulting from other factors, such as the use of increasingly sensitive monitoring equipment or growth in the number of monitoring stations states have set up surrounding the explosive growth in fracking.
"It's kind of a Catch-22," Simmers said, explaining that when states see more activity, they purchase more equipment to monitor the activity. "The more equipment you have, the more activity you detect."
Mills said the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, which monitors drilling for the state, is the wrong agency to be spearheading such as initiative.
Activists in the state have criticized the department for failing to share with the public the scientific basis for tying fracking to quakes and questioned the severity of new state rules announced after the incident.
The department's investigation of five small tremors in the Youngstown area, in the Appalachian foothills, found the injection of sand and water that accompanies fracking in the Utica Shale may have increased pressure on a small, unknown fault. The link has been classified as "probable."
The state placed a moratorium on drilling activity at the site near the epicenter of the quakes while allowing five existing wells to continue production. New permit conditions -- which carry less force than rules or regulations -- were also announced.
The Marcellus and Utica shale fields, rich in natural gas and oil, lie deep underneath parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Maryland and West Virginia, and more than 6,000 new wells have been drilled there over the last five years.