In the 2012 movie, Promised Land, a prospector for an oil and gas company arrives in a small, Midwest town with a briefcase full of royalty checks. The charming young man played by Matt Damon expects the locals to get all starry eyed at the promise of riches. The only hitch is—and this is where Hollywood may be accused of serving up more fairy tale than reality—the locals start firing back with hard questions that crack the Damon character’s unflappable confidence. The movie also stars John Krasinski (Jim in the TV show, The Office) who plays an equally charming environmental activist whose folksy ways represents the conscience of a community struggling with what has been cast as an easy choice: A fat payday in exchange for some of their land. Or more precisely, the mineral rights or all that can be extracted from below the surface.
As the real-life promised land plays out in present day eastern Ohio and in the forests and hills of Pennsylvania, the response to the hydrofracking rush has been to either hail it or hate it. “Fracking” as its known involves clearing land, setting up pipelines and rigs to drill straight down hundreds of feet and then sideways through a seam of bedrock for miles. The companies then pump millions of gallons of water mixed with (undisclosed) chemicals in to the earth to release gas and oil.
Community officials from Trumbull to Carroll counties see fracking as the saving grace for small towns having long ago fallen on hard times. The environmental community has made hay out of the growing number of reports of home faucets catching fire, contaminated water supplies, earthquakes, and illegal dumping.
In between are a cadre of scientists sent in to study fracking’s environmental and economic impacts. Dr. Ted Auch heads the non-profit group FracTracker Alliance whose concern at the moment is a lack of data—particularly around the promised riches of royalties—from fracking in Ohio. Currently, Auch who is young, wears a beard and flannel shirt, is trying to compile a database of reported earnings from the farmers and rural landowners taking the payout from oil and gas companies. Royalties handed out by oil and gas companies are the source of legend, with reports of six-figure sums. Auch sees the royalty data as a way to determine if the market upside is on a growth curve or has been overhyped.
“There are huge gaps in what the royalty checks are,” says Auch, who would like to test whether monthly fluctuations in royalities are a strong bellwether of the real strength—and to an extent, the future—for fracking in Ohio.
“Wall Street is pressuring these companies to report earnings. There is a divide and conquer (practice) that is isolating individuals,” Auch continues, indicating that individual landowners are not armed with comparative data.
His group also regularly analyzes state policy, including the recent proposal from Governor Kasich for a severance tax on fracking.
The environmental plank of the group’s research will involve testing the air and water quality impacts of fracking. FracTracker, which is funded primarily through grants, including a $130,000, two-year grant from the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation, plans to compile data on water and air testing in the vicinity of fracking sites.
Auch cites the example of individuals such as Paul Feasel, who took matters into his own hands recently in order to avoid turning over a few hundred acres in Carroll County, Ohio—considered "ground zero" for fracking—to oil and gas concerns pressing a claim through a practice known as mandatory pooling. An Ohio law established the practice which allows companies to “take” mineral rights to a property when they control 65% of the contiguous parcels, Auch explains.
“He was holding out. So (Feasel) decided to implement a third-party EPA approved (air and water) testing protocol.”
The tactic seems to have spooked the oil and gas men for the time.
FracTracker plans to develop a data logger of water and air quality, Auch adds.
Waste disposal is perhaps the biggest play in Ohio at the moment. Recent rulings by the state will allow fracking waste water to be turned in to a solid and disposed of in municipal waste landfills. Recent tests have found radiation levels present in the solid waste at double federal limits. And, although spraying waste frack water on open roads was made legal in Ohio, its unpopularity will lead to more injection well sites. That may mean a return to the days when waste trains from New York crisscrossed through Northeast Ohio carrying waste to landfills (in this case, from Pennsylvania to underground well sites, which are mainly in Northwest Ohio).
“We’re trying to get a handle on the carrying capacity for solid waste in the state,” he said.
He could foresee policy emerge with enough support for frack free zones based on criteria such as biological diversity and preserving rare species. Until that happens, each fracking site will consume another 40-50 acres, and untold millions of gallons of water for the promise of cheaper gas and oil.