By JULIE CARR SMYTH
Ohio’s top oil and gas regulator went to Washington on Wednesday to advocate continued state oversight of fracking and the disposal of wastewater from drilling.
Rick Simmers, chief of the state’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources, said Ohio has proven that state oversight is superior to returning the power to the federal government. He focused his testimony before the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee on Ohio’s strong regulations and positive track record of enforcement of fracking and deep injection of fracking wastewater.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a technique to extract hard-to-reach gas and oil by pummeling rocks deep underground with high-pressure water, sand and chemicals.
Ohio, Utah and Texas were represented at the hearing.
The appearance by Simmers follows calls last month by a coalition of environmental and community groups for a federal review of Ohio’s state-run program. Simmers did not believe the invitation to appear was related to the complaint.
Groups including ProgressOhio and the Buckeye Forest Council cited recent federal indictments of a Youngstown-area businessman and his employee for alleged illegal dumping of oil and gas waste, and a series of earthquakes near Youngstown among their concerns.
Simmers said Ohio’s program imposes tougher regulations than its sister program within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and has received high marks in peer reviews joined by both outside regulators and environmental groups.
“We welcome any review of our program because we’re doing a great job,” he said. “We are both better suited and better situated to run this program than the federal EPA.”
Simmers said inspectors employed by his division, a part of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, live in the communities they serve and so are able to quickly conduct inspections and respond to emergencies.
He told committee members that, as of Friday, Ohio had issued 596 permits for horizontal drilling in the Utica Shale, 293 have been drilled and 81 have been completed and are producing. Fifty field inspectors are on staff, and Ohio is ready to hire more as demand requires, he said.
“The states realize that even good regulations can be ineffective without the right amount of trained staff to properly enforce the regulations,” he said.
Simmers said in the interview that the Kasich administration has worked to improve regulations to reflect the latest technology and science in the burgeoning oil and gas industry and to crack down on environmental violators.
In announcing last month’s complaint, Teresa Mills of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, alleged the state Natural Resources Department had become “a captured agency” because it relies on the industry it regulates for income.
Activists questioned whether the agency can impartially conduct the investigation ordered by Gov. John Kasich into whether potentially lax regulations led to the dumping incident alleged by federal prosecutors.
In February, Hardrock Excavating LLC owner Ben Lupo and employee Michael Guesman were accused of violating the Clean Water Act by illegally dumping oil and gas wastes into a storm drain. The two pleaded not guilty.
Lupo also owns D&L Energy, whose deep injection well was at the epicenter of more than a dozen earthquakes in the Youngstown area, mostly in late 2011. An earthquake on the eve of 2012 prompted Gov. John Kasich to issue a temporary moratorium on new injection activity in the vicinity.
The department has pointed out that D&L Energy and Hardrock Excavating both had state permits issued by Simmers’ division revoked after the Jan. 31 incident, and all pending permits were denied.
Simmers used the incident during Wednesday’s hearing as an example of the good work of his agency in cooperation with state and federal law enforcement.
“If it was not for the on-the-ground efforts of ODNR’s oil and gas inspectors, this criminal and environmentally threatening illegal activity of dumping oilfield waste directly into the Mahoning River could still be occurring,” he said. “Only with the proper resources and experienced staff could this type of action have been executed so swiftly.”