Property owners seek to limit fracking in Holmes, Ashland, Richland

Submitted photo Cabot Oil & Gas has been exploring and extracting underground natural gas resources in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania for the last decade. Rigs are only on location for as long as it takes to drill the well.

*This story first appeared in The Budget’s March 21, 2018 Local Edition

By Stacey Carmany
The Budget

Cabot Oil & Gas is seeking to explore and develop potential subsurface natural gas resources in Ohio, prompting several area landowners’ groups to team up in opposition to the company’s efforts.

The area being targeted for exploration lies beneath underground natural gas storage fields owned by Columbia Gas Transmission, LLC in Holmes, Ashland and Richland counties.

On August 30, 2017, Cabot entered into a sublease agreement with Columbia to allow the company to explore and potentially develop natural gas resources beneath the storage fields through horizontal drilling and then extract those resources through hydraulic fracturing, a process commonly known as fracking.

“Our agreement right now with Columbia gives us the ability to explore for oil or natural gas from the Utica Shale and below,” explained Brittany Ramos, an external affairs coordinator for Cabot. “We believe that there is something there, a hydrocarbon, an oil, natural gas, natural gas liquid, something, in the layers below the Utica Shale, but the only way to find that out is to actually drill a well and test and see because we can’t just assume.”

She noted that under the current sublease agreement, Cabot already has the right to drill vertical wells in the area, however, the company believes that doing so would not be environmentally sound or economically viable. “We could go in today and sink a whole bunch of vertical wells all over the place, and no one wants to do that, and we have no interest in that,” she explained. “We would rather do horizontal drilling because you can access more of the minerals, you don’t have stranded acreage. It’s beneficial for many reasons.”

However, before this can occur, the company needs property owners in the tri-county area to sign an amendment to their existing agreements with Columbia.

Bill Baker is the founder of a group called Frack Free Ohio that has been helping local landowner groups organize and mobilize against Cabot’s efforts. “I discovered through contacts in Ashland, Richland and Holmes counties that

Cabot Oil was attempting to get folks to sign leases to do horizontal drilling in the area,” he explained. “They were concerned about this, so I worked with landowners in those three counties, and they decided to form individual groups to focus on their direct community to educate their neighbors and address this issue.”

Out of the effort was born the Tri-County Landowners Coalition, comprised of several grassroots groups representing area landowners. Currently, the coalition includes the Hayesville Community on

Fracked Gas (HCFG), representing landowners in Ashland County; the Clear Fork Landowners Group (CFLG), representing property owners from the Clear Fork Valley area of Richland County; Advocates for Local Land (ALL), comprised of landowners in Ash- land and Western Holmes counties; and the Monroe Township Landowners Coalition (MTLC), representing property owners in Monroe Township in Richland County.

Water usage and fluid composition

The coalition has a number of concerns about the proposed method for natural gas extraction, namely the consumption of large amounts of fresh water. “They have to have about 3 to 8 million gallons of clean water to create their mixture, the chemical and sand mixture that does the extraction,” Baker explained. “Not only does it contain the chemicals, but it’s also radioactive because the shale layers are naturally radioactive.”

Ramos stated that the company is committed to sourcing water responsibly during all phases of development. She noted that water is collected only from approved sources, primarily from streams and rivers, with withdrawal amounts carefully monitored and reported back to Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. “We can’t just go on a landowners property, even if they sign an amendment, and just take water,” she said.

As for the composition of the fracking fluid, Ramos said the exact composition is dependent on the specific well and rock formation but is typically comprised of about 99 percent water, 0.5 percent sand, and trace amounts of acid, biocide and surfactants. She noted that the specific formula for each individual well is recorded and made available to the public on the website fracfocus.org.

In response to the claim about the fracking fluid being radioactive, Ramos said that while the rock formations may contain certain radioactive elements like radon, the fluid does not.

Unintentional releases

Another concern cited by the landowner groups is the potential for fracking fluid to inadvertently make its way back to the surface by way of a well casing failure or via orphaned wells. “Our aquifers are generally about 500 feet. These wells are much deeper below it, but there are ways for that fracking fluid to get back to the surface, one being orphan wells and the second is a well- casing failure,” Baker explained. “Sometimes, that water will travel back up the side of the well casing to get into the aquifer.”

Ramos agreed that orphaned wells are a problem in Ohio, but noted that State law requires the company to conduct studies to determine where those wells are located. “Abandoned and orphaned wells are a thing, and that comes from processes in the 1800s, however, Ohio regulations make us make sure we know where those are,” she said. “In addition to Ohio’s stringent regulations, we have Columbia’s data that they shared with us and, on top of that, Cabot will do its own due diligence to make sure there’s nothing that can create an issue.”

Ramos said she is unaware of any cases where fracking fluid has made its way back up to the surface because of a well casing failure. “Physically, it’s impossible because you have so much pressure of the earth pushing down on everything, and the fact that there would be a straight pathway for that to travel back up, it just doesn’t exist,” she said.

Ramos noted much of the company’s risk mitigation activities focus on a much more likely scenario: the possibility of spills at the surface. “We do everything humanly possible to make sure we minimize the chance of something touching the earth that shouldn’t,” she said. “Spills do happen. That is the reality, but we need to make sure that we’re on top of that, we are reporting when that does happen, and we are doing everything we can to prevent that from happening.”

Another common concern with the extraction process cited by opponents is the migration of methane, a combustible gas that is commonly found beneath the earth’s surface. “When they fracture it, even at a very deep gap, any of the natural gas pockets around that are sometimes forced to migrate closer to the surface,” Baker explained. “It’s as controlled as it can be but, of course, they’re fracturing the rock, and they cannot control where those fractures go so there are times when methane migrates to places that it shouldn’t or isn’t desired.”

Ramos said that notion that the company cannot control where the fractures go is simply not true. “We are constantly monitoring things like rate of flow, pressure of what we’ re pumping, pressure of a well. What that does is it allows us to get a look at how far the fractures are spreading and what they look like,” she said. “This idea that we’re blindly doing things underground is patently false.”

As for methane migrations, Ramos said there is a natural non- permeable layer known as cap rock that prevents gases from making their way to the surface. That layer is drilled through whenever a well is established, however, the company does take certain precautions to ensure that gases are unable to escape. “If we drill, we’ll go through that rock layer, but we’ll have the steel casing and the cement to make sure we continue sealing that so there’s not a leak,” she said. “It’s in our best interest that if there is something here, and we hope that there is something, that we’ re able to capture it as much as possible, so all of our technology is aimed toward that idea.”

Incentives and protections

As an incentive to get landowners to sign the proposed amendment, Cabot is offering certain incentives and protections. Among the incentives are a 12.5 percent royalty, a consideration payment of $25 per acre, and a well pad location fee that provides for payment of anticipated damages for surface activities to landowners who volunteer to host a well pad on their properties.

Another provision of the amendment allows for subsequent favorable terms, meaning that should a landowner group agree to terms with the company that are more favorable before May 1, anyone who had signed the amendment previously would receive the same benefit.

The company has also agreed to provide water testing for water sources up to 3,000 feet from the wellhead and fund any necessary surface restorations once the opera- tions are completed. Ohio Department of Natural Resource regulations only require testing out to 1,500 feet.

“We will test out to a 3,000-foot radius of wherever we put our wellbore,” Ramos explained. “Wherever that is, we go 3,000 feet out in all directions and we test surface water, so rivers, streams, lakes, potable water, water wells, anything livestock could drink, that sort of thing. We’ll sample it and test it. We send it to a certified third-party laboratory. They’ll send the analysis back to us, and then we’ll also send a copy back to the landowner as well.”

Ramos noted that the company is also happy to split samples if landowners would like to have additional testing done at a lab of their choosing. She added that testing is conducted not just once but multiple times over the life of the well.

Several protections are also built into the amendment that prohibit Cabot from disposing of drill cuttings or residual wastes on the property, from drilling an injection or disposal well on the property, and from using surface water on the property without prior written consent from the property owner.

Forced pooling

Baker noted that landowners are under no obligation to sign the amendment, however, if the com- pany is able to get other property owners in the area to approve updated lease terms for 65 percent of the 640 acres needed property to build a well pad, the remaining property owners in that area can be forced to sign through a legal process known as forced pooling.

“Landowners can be forced into signing, or basically have their rights taken away from them,” he explained. “The industry would have to file a lawsuit and legally take away the subsurface rights of the landowners who were not willing to sign.”

At this point in time, Cabot has no interest in forced pooling, according to Ramos. “The reason for that is it takes months for that process to happen because you have to go through a legal process, you have to show why you need it,” she explained. “We do want to drill a well as soon as possible just because we have so much money to put into exploration. It’s not going to stay here forever. Eventually, our corporate office is going to look for other places to deploy it.”

Ramos noted that the company is also seeking ratification of the exist- ing leases as a part of the amendment, which is a standard industry practice that protects the company against future legal challenges from landowners against its right to drill in an area. “If we’re putting multi-million dollars into something, it makes sense for us to protect our- selves,” she said.

For more info about the coalition, contact Baker by calling 419-612- 4069.

Other group contact info is as follows:

  • Hayesville Community on Fracked Gas – Elaine Tanner – elaine.ffej@gmail.com or friendsforenvironmentaljustice@gmail.com
  • Clear Fork Landowners Group – CFLandowners@gmail.com
  • Advocates for Local Land – advocates411@gmail.com
  • Monroe Township Landowners Coalition – Chairman David Graham – monroetlc2@gmail.com.

Cabot can be reached directly at 412-249-3862.