Ohio & Fracking Waste: The Case for Better Waste Management
Insights on Ohio’s massive fracking waste gap, Class II injection well activity, and fracking waste related legislation.
At a time when the Ohio legislature is yet again considering legislation that would make it easier for the oil and gas industry to offload their intractable problem with waste production and disposal, I thought it was high time to update some of the relevant data, underscoring the excruciating need for stronger waste management policies.
There is currently language under discussion in Columbus that would modify the Ohio Revised Code (ORC) to allow for the sale of oil and gas brine as a commodity and exempt such products from laws otherwise applicable to brine. Based on our nearly nine years of studying the oil and gas industry in Ohio and across Appalachia, efforts to reclassify brine by way of the ORC is counterproductive.
Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) and the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program chronically catalogue oil and gas waste incompletely, lessening the public’s understanding of the scale of the production, transport, and disposal of oil and gas waste. Proposals like last year’s House Bill 545 and the current legislative push embodied in HB 282 are antithetical to the necessity for dramatic strengthening of waste laws. Even the oil and gas sector has pointed out how friendly the regulatory environment is in Ohio – from some of the lowest severance taxes in the country to the ease with which the industry is able to construct infrastructure like gas gathering pipelines, compressor stations Class II injection wells, processing infrastructure, and more.
Explore FracTracker’s album of oil and gas waste imagery
When the oil and gas industry is in a pinch from too much waste production and insufficient disposal capacity, they lean on something called “Chief’s Orders” (ORC 1509.22), essentially allowing any operator to do an end run around permitting and public accountability. Anecdotally we know that some of the most active and concerning waste sites in the state fall under Chief’s Orders, including Belmont Solids in Cadiz, Ohio and Austin Masters in Martins Ferry. These are, respectively, the sixth and seventh most active processors of drill cuttings coming from the fracking industry in Pennsylvania (Figure 1). Five of the top ten most active Ohio processors of Pennsylvania’s solid fracking waste were able to obtain Chief’s Orders exemptions. This reality supports the claim made by many in Ohio that any modification to the ORC at this point must strengthen oversight and reporting criteria for oil and gas waste. The waste problem in Appalachia continues to grow, as do the disposal and handling costs to the fracking industry, and the health and environmental risks to the public.
Figure 1. Total fracking solid waste being disposed of in Ohio from Pennsylvania operators from 2009 to 2020 (Tons) (Compiled from Pennsylvania DEP Oil & Gas Waste Report Ohio Destinations 2009-2020).
The new waste bill has a companion bill in the senate (SB 171) sponsored by Frank Hoagland and Michael Rulli. Senator Hoagland has advocated for this bill while simultaneously expressing outrage at the permitting of Class II injection wells in his district. The irony is disturbing. Senator Hoagland told the Allegheny Front that the OMNI Oil & Gas injection wells being constructed in Belmont County had zero support: “We’ve got the township trustees don’t want it. We’ve got the county commissioners don’t want it. We’ve got the state rep don’t want it. We’ve got the locals that don’t want it…And I myself put in a letter saying we don’t need it there.”
Yet, when asked about the idea of sending oversight for Ohio’s Class II injection wells back to the US EPA, he somehow managed to find a way to justify the continued oversight of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR), even though that the agency had just ignored the will of the people (and including him) in the OMNI example. The problem is that even on its face public support for those living in the shadow of Class II injection wells appears performative at best when considering the long-term and widespread potential costs incurred by Ohioans if HB 282/SB 171 are passed and signed by Governor DeWine. One of the top costs incurred by Ohio’s ecosystems and its residents is the billions of gallons of waste produced by the unconventional oil and gas industry. This is in addition to the thousands of legacy wells left unaddressed that themselves produced 1.93 billion barrels of brine in 2020 alone. The issue of oil and gas waste is the connective tissue (i.e., insidious tendrils) binding the industry across the tri-state region by way of production, transport, and disposal networks (Figure 2).
Figure 2. Ohio Fracking Waste Network and Associated Brine Haulers (Source ODNR Division of Oil & Gas Public Records Request #4766 for all Brine Hauler Registration forms, November 2nd, 2020).
Whether conventional or unconventional, the oil and gas sector in Ohio is predicated on cheap sources of water, and even cheaper places to dispose of its solid and liquid waste — much of it hazardous and radioactive. The fracking industry has had longevity because elected officials and the ODNR have made it inexpensive and easy to dispose of brine waste or reclassify it as benign and safe to spread on our roads.
Yet the same ODNR discovered alarming radiological data in their own analysis “…of 107 samples from 10 different formations in 26 different counties” (Figure 3). According to ODNR’s own comments regarding SB 171 among other issues it would do the following:
- The bill eliminates all current statutes that regulate the spreading of conventional oil & gas brine for ice and dust control for brine that is deemed a “commodity” by a third party of which the Division has no input.
- The bill eliminates current statutory requirements for local government approval for the spreading of conventional oil & gas brine for ice and dust control on that government ‘s roads for brine that is determined a “commodity”.
- Exempts “commodity” brine spreading from ten minimum safety standards for spreading, reporting requirements, and bonding and insurance requirements for brine haulers established in current law.
- Prevents cradle to grave tracking of brine hauling and disposal in Ohio. An owner could report brine production at a well, but without repotting requirements of “commodity” brine spreading, the Division would have no record of its disposal.
- Previously amended the statute to decrease the one-time brine hauler registration fee from $500 to $50 in response to past versions of the legislation.
- If the “brine” is a commodity and a third patty approves the use, the draft states that no provision of Revised Code may apply to it. Thus, once a commodity always a commodity.
- The bill prescribes the criteria that the Division must use for approval as a commodity but, it also eliminates the Divisions ability to conduct regulatory oversight in a manner consistent with routine inspection policies established to ensure the safety of the public and the environment from Division permitted activities. The bill only allows testing four times a year by the Division.
- The bill requires the Division to accept the approval of third-party entities evaluation that the Division had no knowledge of input on, or any legal authority to require any input on.
- The proscribed acceptance limit for Ra-226 @20,000 pCi/1 and Ra-228 @2,500 pCi/1 are inconsistent with concentrations currently approved in other States such as North Dakota and Colorado for the spreading of conventional oil & gas brine for ice and dust control. This value is four times higher than some other states that regulate brine spreading.
- The bill allows for any person to use the “commodity” for ice and dust control. The long- term impact for private use is unknown. Regarding its radioactive content, commercial use for road-spreading and personal use at home present entirely different human exposure risks.
- The bill requires the Division to approve brine as a commodity using criteria as a one-time approval process and specifically prohibits any future changes or updates to the process regardless of unanticipated or unintentional consequences of its use.
Fast forward to a meeting concerned citizens were granted with Senator Hoagland and ODNR staff including Eric Vendel Chief of the Division of oil and gas this past Tuesday June 1st regarding SB 171 and ODNR reiterating that one of their biggest concerns about brine and the product in question AquaSalina is that they would face a wave of class-action litigation when citizens realize this salt substitute had such high levels of Radium in it. ODNR went on to point out that products such as AquaSalina would be exempt from bonding and insurance requirements if the ORC were to reflect the language in SB 171. Senator Hoagland responded by saying that …if he wanted, he could “kill the bill’.”
He then turned to the three representatives of ODNR and asked if they would like that to happen to which they responded “Yes, we want the bill to go away.” Senator Hoagland indicated he wanted to “draw a line in the sand on this brine issue,” but that he thought if SB 171 were to fail, it would reappear next session (which it seems to many observers is the case). However, those in attendance suggested he instead focus on changing the ORC to require that all brine trucks be placarded which is something he has indicated a willingness to do. Whether the senator does indeed “kill the bill” and/or pivot to placarding of brine trucks is to be determined.
Figure 3. Radium 226 and 228 (pCi/L) Brine Concentrations in 100+ ODNR Samples from 10 Formations in 2017-2018 (Source ODNR Division of Oil & Gas “Radiation Safety Section Preliminary Brine Study Results July, 2nd 2018).
ODNR found that on average, all brine samples they tested, regardless of formation, exceeded EPA drinking water (5 pCi) and Ohio Administrative Code (60 pCi) legal limits by 228 and 19 times, respectively, with the Marcellus and Point Pleasant formations ranking the highest with average levels of 2,316 and 2,096 pCi/l (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Low, High, and Average Combined Radium 226 and 228 (picocuries Per Liter (pCi/l)) found in 107 samples of brine from 10 different formations in 26 Ohio counties (Note: Only 1 sample was collected from the Utica formation) (Source ODNR Division of Oil & Gas “Radiation Safety Section Preliminary Brine Study Results July, 2nd 2018).
It is not just the ODNR that has contradicted the use of oil and gas waste for deicing. During its Fall 2020 meeting the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission decided against the purchase of deicing product from AquaSalina, the Ohio company using fracking brine in its product line, preferring instead to let “ODOT continue with their investigation and evaluation of AquaSalina.”
The current Ohio legislative proposals, House Bill 282 and Senate Bill 171, would monetize the oil and gas industry’s waste for profit when it should be the industry’s cost to incur. This bill’s proponents claim that they are only targeting conventional oil and gas brine waste, but the data suggests otherwise.
In FracTracker’s ongoing analyses, we see that conventional brine waste (brine coming from legacy oil and gas wells), as a percentage of all oil and gas brine waste, has gone from 18.9% in 2016 to 6.1% in 2020. Clearly, the industry may have a goal of facilitating new ways to offload their mounting waste stream onto Ohio’s roads and into our environment forever.
Meanwhile, the oil and gas waste coming from out-of-state, namely Pennsylvania and West Virginia, increases. Out of state brine has accounted for approximately 43% – 48% of the waste disposed of in Ohio Class II Salt Water Disposal wells (Figures 5 and 6). As the merit of aforementioned bills are debated, proposals mount for new for Class II injection and fracking waste offloading terminals along Ohio’s side of the Ohio River. The asymmetric distribution of risk must be corrected. HB 282 would do the opposite by giving the imprimatur to expanded applications of brine waste and a more friendly market-based approach for dealing with a dangerous waste stream — one which we have incomplete information on both in terms of what’s in it (See TENORM Vs NORM) and broader information gaps.
Figure 5. Quarterly rate of change in Unconventional Fracking Waste going to Ohio’s Class II Salt Water Disposal Injection Wells (Data compiled from periodic Public Records Requests to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Underground Injection Control Program and their quarterly, but now annually, Brine Disposal fee spreadsheets.)
Figure 6. Ohio Existing and Proposed Fracking Waste Network (Compiled from the different data sets referenced above and linked below as well as related Public Records Requests to the ODNR).
Our data has shown that unconventional drilling is using more and more water, chemicals, and proppant for marginal increases in gas. The ratio of resources-needed-to-gas-produced has sharply increased. To underscore the discrepancy between conventional and unconventional waste production, an average unconventional well in Ohio produces 9,465 barrels of brine per year versus 23 – 44 barrels for conventional wells. Again, this dramatic differential fuels warranted speculation that brine spreading and commodification legislation is ultimately aiding the disposition of waste from unconventional drilling in Appalachia.
New waste legislation should:
- Implement processes to fill-in the myriad gaps in the data collected by ODNR as it pertains to oil and gas waste;
- Holistically price the processing of waste to reflect the entirety of short/long-term costs; and,
- Eliminate the ability of private companies to profiteer from the repurposing and rebranding of oil and gas waste.
We should not continue socializing costs and privatizing the gains of past, present, and future oil and gas exploration.
It is extremely important to take a long-term view on waste rule changes. Unintended consequences of could run deep, broad, and well into the category of the “unknown unknowns” made famous by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld almost 20 years ago. The oil and gas industry has not hidden the fact that they do not really know how to manage their exponential waste production. They are desperate to identify what some are euphemistically calling “cost saving disposal solutions.”
Ohio Oil & Gas Waste Data Updates
Unfortunately, the ODNR has decided, unprompted, to revise its reporting criteria for Class II injection wells. Operators are now allowed to report brine intake volumes on an annual basis rather than quarterly. This means that a barrel of fracking waste disposed of in any given Class II well in Ohio in January2020 was not accounted-for until March 2021. This lag in reporting, combined with the analog nature of brine hauler reporting forms, renders much of the fracking waste data irrelevant. Of further consternation is that S.B. 171 would lower brine hauler registration fees from $500 to $50, slashing revenue needed to monitor this critical component of the Appalachia oil and gas waste network. Brine-hauler registration forms examined thus far reveal that 48% of all brine trucks are registered in Pennsylvania. Twenty-eight percent are registered 28% in Ohio and 12% in West Virginia.
Overall, fracking waste has increased as a percentage of Class II waste volume, climbing from 52% in 2016 to 83% in 2020. The most disturbing trend is that unconventional waste has similarly increased from 92% of Class II in-state waste in 2016 to 127% in 2020. Put another way, 27%, or 6.33 million barrels, of the fracking waste produced in Ohio is missing in the accounting. Many Ohioans believe the mystery waste is illegally dumped and/or otherwise dubiously processed.
Meanwhile, conventional oil and gas waste volumes declined by almost 10% per year between 2016 and 2020 from 3.7 million barrels (12.1% of Class II waste) to 1.9 million barrels (5.4% of Class II waste). These trends, and associated data gaps, have resulted in an unacceptable 22-29% hole in our understanding of oil and gas industry-related waste data. Such deficits in our knowledge, in combination with current debates about ORC changes in Columbus, demonstrate the imperative of a comprehensive approach to waste management and data transparency – one that puts the interests of Ohioans before the desires of private industry.
The Take Away
The fracking waste problem in Appalachia continues to grow, as do the disposal and handling costs to the industry, and the health and environmental risks to the public. Allowing for the sale of oil and gas brine as a commodity and exempting such products from laws otherwise applicable to brine, would only exacerbate these risks.
References & Where to Learn More
Special thanks to Buckeye Environmental Network Executive Director Teresa Mills for all her help in compiling this piece as well as all the members of the Ohio Brine Spreading Task Force, and in particular Roxanne Groff of Athens County and Jenny Morgan of Franklin County for getting the meeting with ODNR and Senator Hoagland this past Tuesday.
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