Climate Corner: Fracking — good water in, bad water out

Jun 1, 2024

George Banziger

With the active support of state legislatures in West Virginia and Ohio and the engagement of oil and gas companies, many of which are based outside of this region, fracking (high-pressure hydraulic fracturing) is in high gear in this region. It takes 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of fresh water for each fracking well (U.S. Geological Survey, 2022), a thirst that seems unquenchable with the level of fracking we observe. Since the Ohio legislature, the governor, and the agencies that are supposed to serve the public have mandated that fracking be done under public lands including the Ohio state parks, we can assume that much of this water will be drawn from watersheds that serve these public lands. We in eastern Ohio are outraged at the arrogance of the state legislature, where this mandate to drill under public lands originated. The legislation that created this mandate was buried (stuffed) in a poultry bill so there was no opportunity for public hearings. We are also fearful about the impact of fracking, such as reduced watersheds, air pollution, intrusion of service roads near our parks, health risks, and ecological degradation.

But in the Mid-Ohio Valley what is of greater concern to us is the detritus from this heightened fracking activity. I am referring, of course, to what is called “brine waste,” the bi-product of fracking, much of which is radioactive and which contains harmful chemicals including PFAS (forever chemicals), carcinogens, volatile organic compounds, and more. Of course, oil and gas producers attempt to mollify us by stating that only about 1% of brine waste contains these chemicals, but when we are talking about millions of gallons of brine waste, the amounts of these harmful substances are non-trivial (it is important to note here that oil and gas companies are not required to reveal the contents of brine waste, a privilege granted by the federal government–independent observers have tested samples of brine waste). Washington County, Ohio, has the dubious distinction of leading the state in the total volume of brine waste injected under its grounds. According to data from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, a total of 5,985,024 barrels (a barrel is about 43 gallons) of brine waste were pushed into the ground through what are called Class II injection wells in 2023! Most injection wells are in eastern Ohio; one might ask how many barrels were injected in Franklin County (Columbus area) and whether such egregious exploitation would be tolerated in the environs where our public officials and department personnel reside (the answer is 0).

On a summer evening in 2023 a brine-waste truck, which was on Interstate 77 near Parkersburg went off the road, through a guard rail, and into a culvert near a stream. Tragically, the driver was killed. There was an investigation of what happened to the brine waste that the truck was hauling, but I have not seen any result of that investigation. A point of interest is that this accident occurred on a Saturday. I have observed brine trucks going through downtown Marietta on week days but also on weekends and even on holidays. We are led to ask how many hours per week these drivers are working and how alert can they be with the amount of hours they are apparently putting in.

In Ohio the agency that is tasked to review the “nominations” (i.e., requests) and bids from oil and gas companies to drill under public lands is the Oil and Gas Land Management Commission. When this commission initiated the invitation for nominations, there was a flood of requests from oil and gas companies, many from out of the state, that was akin to the 1849 California Gold Rush. This reflects an all too familiar pattern in Appalachia–back in the 1800s lumber and coal were extracted from the region with profits going to outside interests, and the locals of the region are left to suffer the environmental and health consequences. In the 21st Century the resource is natural gas.

If the resource of natural gas, which lies beneath the surface of eastern Ohio in the Utica Shale, is so critical to American energy independence and so important to the effective transition to renewable energy, then why can’t much of this valuable resource be left in the ground for future extraction?


George Banziger, Ph.D., was a faculty member at Marietta College and an academic dean at three other colleges. He is a member of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Marietta, and of the Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action team.