Stepping into the Utica Shale

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH

I recently had the honor of presenting to a well-informed and concerned audience of residents, media, academics, non-profits, and industry personnel in the town of Alliance in Northeastern Ohio. The reason I was asked to participate in this public meeting was to provide some insight into how drilling has progressed in Pennsylvania from a public health perspective. While Ohio doesn’t really have much Marcellus Shale activity, the industry has been ramping up their efforts in the Utica Shale, which is situated approximately 6,500 feet beneath Alliance and below the Marcellus formation. See the map below of all known U.S. shale plays; the Utica has been shaded blue.

Shale gas plays with Utica in blue

Shale gas plays in continental U.S., with Utica in blue

Also on the agenda that evening were two experts in their fields: Dr. Jeffrey Dick, Chair of the Geology and Environmental Science department at Youngstown State University, who spoke about the hydraulic fracturing process and the available research regarding its impacts from a geological and hydrological perspective; and Dr. Theodore Voneida, professor emeritus of Neurobiology at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, who discussed medical concerns with a very moving talk and follow-up video.

The event began as expected – with an air of fear present as to what this consortium of speakers would say about such a potential money-maker for certain mineral rights owners and the local economy. What surprised me by the end of the presentations was the intuitive discussion among residents and attendees of their experiences with the industry and landsmen. (Landsmen are the personnel hired by the gas drilling companies to persuade mineral rights owners to lease their property for natural gas extraction purposes. Historically, there have been many complaints raised about the transparency of the process and the unscrupulous nature of these contracted employees.) Alliance’s residents reported similar experiences. Some were told, “all of your neighbors have leased, so we’ll get the gas out one way or another.” When, in fact, those neighbors (also present at the meeting) had not signed, but were given the same spiel about why they should lease their mineral rights to one company in particular.

The most unfortunate part about witnessing this discussion was the realization that I had heard it all before: in 2009 and 2010 when drilling activity intensified in PA and WV. In fact, residents’ concerns and frustrations were significant driving forces behind the development of FracTracker. People craved access to easy to understand and transparent information about the pace of lease, drilling, and its associated risks. I truly hope that we’ve begun to provide what is needed to make well-informed decisions about natural gas drilling since that time.

Shale gas drilling activity is increasing quickly in Ohio. According to Dr. Dick, there were six drilling rigs working the region in November 2011. By late February 2012, 18 rigs were at work and 76 wells have been permitted. At least 10 different companies are aiming to exploit the Utica Shale in 18 counties of Eastern Ohio. With no end to this surge in site, FracTracker will strive to respond with an increase in Ohio data sets, snapshots, and stories that will keep everyone better informed.

Additional Resources:


Author Information:
Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH — Communications Specialist, FracTracker; Doctorate of Public Health Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health Department. Samantha can be reached by email: malone@fractracker.org or phone: 412-648-8541.

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