June 20 2012
By Colleen Leonardi & MacKenzie Bailey
With the natural gas industry moving into parts of Ohio with the aim of drilling for natural gas using a process known as fracking, we wanted to learn more about the relationship between fracking and farmland. Policy Program Director at the Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association, MacKenzie Bailey answered some of our questions.
Colleen Leonardi: What is fracking and what’s its history here in the U.S.?
MacKenzie Bailey: High-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” is a method of oil and gas extraction that injects a mixture of water, toxic chemicals and sand at high pressure deep underground to break apart rock formations such as shale, limestone, sandstone or coal beds.
Various forms of fracking have been around for decades, first used commercially by Halliburton in 1949. But, fracking today looks very different than it did back then. Today’s technology allows companies to drill much deeper and in tighter rock formations. Horizontal wells, which can extend up to a mile underground, use more toxic chemicals and millions of gallons of water.
CL: Why has the natural gas industry moved into parts of Ohio to begin to drill?
MB: Due to new technological advances, the fracking industry has been able to tap into shale rock formations that contain oil, natural gas and natural gas liquids (propane, butane and ethane), that were previously not economically feasible to exploit. The eastern half of Ohio rests upon the Devonian, Marcellus and Utica Shale formations.
The Ohio Geological Survey reports that northeast Ohio has the most oil and gas potential, including parts of Ashtabula, Trumbull, Portage, Stark, Mahoning, Columbiana, Carroll, Tuscarawas and Coshocton counties. In central Ohio, the Utica Shale underlies parts of Marion, Delaware, Union and Morrow counties.
CL: How does the natural gas industry gain permission from a farmer to use their land to drill?
MB: Oil and gas companies need to obtain signed leases from the property owners in a drilling unit in order to operate on the land or collect the mineral resources below the surface. Once 65 percent of the land is leased the company may move forward with applying for a drilling permit from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
These leases are legally binding documents. Landowners that are approached about signing a lease should seek advice from an experienced lawyer, who ideally has a background in oil and gas law as well as contract negotiations. Some lawyers will claim a percentage of the sign on bonus and/or royalty payments, meaning they benefit only if their client signs a lease. For landowners that prefer not to sign a lease, it may be worthwhile to seek a lawyer that charges a flat fee.
Ohio recently passed an energy bill that falls short in some significant ways, including the ability to protect the rights of private property owners when negotiating an oil and gas lease.
CL: What effect does fracking have on the land and the natural resources of that farmland?
MB: Fracking can potentially have a huge impact on land, air and water resources. These new drilling operations are resource-intensive and can use up to 300 times more water than conventional fracking. This water is combined with sand and a mixture of toxic chemicals creating a brine known as frack fluid.
According to new Ohio laws, the exact formula used in frack fluid does not need to be disclosed by the companies, protected as a “trade secret,” however, this fluid can contain hundreds of dangerous chemicals including: benzene; methane; radioactive materials, such as strontium, uranium and radon, and heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium, barium and arsenic. After this fluid is injected underground, some of it comes back up as wastewater, where it may have picked up other naturally-occurring heavy metals and radioactive materials.
Both the frack fluid and wastewater need to be transported to and from the site. At every step of the fracking process, from injection and recovery to storage and transport, there is the potential for contamination of water and soil through underground fissures, spills, leaks and blowouts. Well failures are fairly common at drilling sites. In 2011, Pennsylvania levied 141 violations against Chesapeake Energy alone. Of those, 24 involved failures of well integrity or underground leaks.
Scientists at Duke University published the first rigorous, peer-reviewed study of water pollution at drilling and fracking operations. Examining 60 sites in New York and Pennsylvania, they found “systematic evidence for methane contamination” in household drinking water. Water wells half a mile from drilling operations were contaminated by methane at 17 times the rate of those farther from gas development.
Land use and air pollution are also of concern. Semi-truck trailers transport frack fluid, wastewater and drilling equipment to and from the fracking site. In addition to the drill pads and compressor stations, which can take up acres of land themselves, roads and pipeline may need to be built. The increased development has been known to elevate air pollution, particularly ozone levels, in rural areas.
CL: How might those effects influence the quality and sustainability of the food from Ohio farms?
MB: Farmers’ livelihoods depend on the integrity of the soil, clean water and pollution-free air. If there is a spill, leak or blowout, food could become contaminated by fracking fluid or wastewater. If contamination occurs on land that is certified organic, that land will be taken out of organic production for at least three years, and the farmer will lose that income.
Livestock are attracted to the salty toxic brine used in fracking and, therefore, are particularly vulnerable if there is contamination to soil and water. According to a Food and Water Watch report, in 2009, 16 cattle in Louisiana died after drinking spilled frack fluids. Other similar reports have been made.
Air pollution near fracking sites can have an impact on a farm’s production. For instance, elevated levels of ground level ozone due to natural gas drilling, as has been seen in southwestern Wyoming, can lower soybean crop yields – Ohio’s largest agricultural commodity. Other crops that can be affected by ozone include spinach, tomatoes, beans, alfalfa and other forages.
Although burning conventional natural gas is known to have a lower greenhouse gas effect than burning coal or oil, a 2011 Cornell University study showed that gas obtained from shale rock could actually have a greater footprint. This is because the release of methane, which is very potent greenhouse gas, from shale rock can escape into the atmosphere. This could contribute to climate disruption, which leads to unpredictable growing seasons.
CL: Does fracking have any effect on the farmers and people surrounding the farmland?
MB: Although fracking can have positive short-term economic impacts for lease signers and local businesses, the long-term health and environmental impacts cannot be ignored.
Contact with the toxic chemicals used in fracking or air pollutants can affect more than just farmland productivity; it can have serious public health implications. Chemicals used in fracking have been linked to a wide range of health impacts affecting the endocrine, cardiovascular, immune, nervous and respiratory systems. Of course, that depends on which specific chemicals a person is exposed to and in Ohio, oil and gas companies can keep certain chemicals secret from the public. Ohio law allows, only after a person has been affected by chemical exposure, medical professionals to request a full chemical disclosure list from the company.
Additionally, the large amount of industrial infrastructure that is needed in order to support a drilling site causes land fragmentation, putting land out of agricultural production. In Pennsylvania, organic farmers have surrendered their certification because they are losing too much land to be able to have enough feed for their animals and meet access to pasture requirements for their livestock.
Finally, gas development can also lower land and property values that make resale difficult. This can happen for a few reasons. First, once a lease is signed, it is legally binding and stays attached to the land; potential home buyers may be more reluctant to purchase such a property. Second, fracking sites are noisy and unsightly and most buyers do not want this in their backyard. Finally, if contamination were to occur, it could immediately lower property values.
CL: According to Don’t Frack Ohio, “Governor John Kasich has stated a goal of expanding the number of fracking wells in Ohio to over 4,000 within 4 years.” What does the future of sustainable agriculture in Ohio look like, in your mind, if Governor Kasich meets these goals?
MB: That is a good question and there are still many unknowns. On one hand, we could see an economic boom in rural communities from natural gas development. On the other, we could experience land fragmentation and contamination of soil, water and air that puts small farmers out of business or leaves them sitting on land with little or no value.
What I do know is that the Governor recently signed an energy bill that provides oil and gas companies with a lot of leeway and very little accountability. Companies do not have enough incentive to prevent contamination of our water, protect the health of our communities or even employ workers from the state of Ohio. At the same time, there is almost no opportunity for local governments to interject or Ohio residents to publicly comment or appeal a drilling permit decision.
With such an extreme expansion of natural gas and oil extraction in this state, we need to proceed cautiously rather than allowing big corporations to have free reign over our land.
CL: What can people do to learn more about fracking and take action?
MB: To learn more about OEFFA, fracking or to take action, please visit our website at policy.oeffa.org/fracking.