LOGAN — Could hydraulic fracturing harm the environment and natural resources in Hocking County? It’s a big question springing up around the community these days, as an attempt to balance economic development and protection of private property is underway.

Hydraulic fracturing is the process of drilling thousands of feet into the earth — first vertically and then horizontally — using a variety of water and chemicals to break through the rock, and it has been the subject of many public meetings around the area.

Sterling "J.R." Dietrich owns 40 acres in Hocking County, and he's considering leasing his land. Dietrich has attended several meetings about the issue in an effort to learn everything he can before entering into a contract. If done properly, he believes, fracking can be very beneficial to the local economy.

“It’s safe if done the right way, and of course it would be well controlled because the state is going to be all over [regulating] it,” he said. “It would be good for the economy. Something like that would boost everything all the way around, all the way from your organic farming to your businessman selling cars and houses. Everyone would have more money, they’d buy more things, and send their kids to get better educations and have better homes. They should be able to have a better lifestyle.”

Dietrich believes he has a good grasp of the fracking process after hearing several speakers at public meetings in Hocking and surrounding counties. If a property owner has a strong contract with a reputable company, there’s less cause for concern, he said.

Dietrich hasn't signed anything just yet; he's waiting to see the price per acre of other leases in the area.

“Who knows exactly what they’ll be,” he said. “They’re speculating all over on price.”

Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group

Cathy Schafer still has concerns about fracking. She's a member of the Southeast Ohio Fracking Interest Group, and the group formed as an information gathering organization designed to help property owners decide if signing a lease is right for them.

“When I went to Wetzel County in West Virginia where drilling has happened for four or five years, I did a 360 on the hilltop and could see five large well pads, and just in a small area of 30 square miles,” Schafer said. “One of my major concerns is the impact on the environment and the land, and there’s a huge impact on the roads, with the truck traffic dramatically increasing. Then there’s the water contamination — there have been over 1,000 cases of water contamination by people in the country.”

There’s no hurry to sign the leases, Schafer is urging property owners. “We want people to really think about the leases. There’s just tons of information on the subject, so everybody should really educate themselves.”

Schafer believes landowners should hire an oil and gas attorney, preferably not affiliated with the industry in any way. She also thinks property owners will get the best deal if they join together with their neighbors and form an association.

“Don’t just listen to what the industry says, but do some research. And we think our county commissioners ought to be very active,” Schafer said. “All too often, they wait; but they should take a leading role talking to companies and asking for the best deal their community can get.”

Three bills have been introduced in the Ohio House and Senate in relation to fracking. One calls for the disclosure of chemicals being used to break the rock, while the others call for a moratorium on drilling and injection wells until the Environmental Protection Agency releases its report later this year.

Schafer recommends visting www.neogap.org to learn more about the hazards of fracking.

Professor of petroleum engineering at Marietta College

Robert Chase is a professor and chair of the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Geology at Marietta College, and says there is a lot of misinformation out there about hydraulic fracturing. Chase argues that fracking doesn’t contaminate the aquifers that supply drinking water if done properly, and that fracking itself doesn’t cause earthquakes.

“The companies here in Ohio are all bigger companies, bigger than the ones we’ve seen in Ohio in the past, and their reputation is very important to them in the way they’re perceived by the public and the government. So they’re taking precautions beyond what’s required by Ohio gas law to make sure nothing happens to the ground water,” Chase said. “They are creating multiple strings of casing before drilling through fresh water zones.”

In December 2011, the EPA concluded that fracking likely polluted a town’s aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo. Chase might be called upon to study that scenario and see what went wrong, he explained, so he declined to comment on specifics. He did, however, say that the ground water aquifers were underneath the rock where the natural gas was stored. While that may have contributed to the contamination of the town’s water supply, it shouldn’t be an issue in Ohio, he argues, because the water aquifers in this region are located above the rock being fracked.

The belief that fracking causes earthquakes is also incorrect, Chase argues. While the drilling process of fracking doesn’t cause earthquakes, there’s a theory that where the disposal wells are located in relation to fault lines might be a factor. “We’re not really sure, but in the case of Youngstown, the disposal wells are located right in the area of a geological fault, sort of like a mini San Andreas. It’s theorized that the fluid pumped in there is getting into the fault and lubricating it to move.”

Chase also said that while there is a perception that companies are not being forthright with the chemicals being put into the ground, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources requires all companies to report everything they’ve done for years in their fracking jobs. “That has to be reported to the state, and companies tell people up front and let people know on www.frackfocus.org,” he said.

When asked if environmentalists had any valid concerns, Chase replied, “In the past, companies have done some things because they make the frack fluids better. Some of the things they were using were toxic chemicals, and even though they’re diluted it would be better not to use them. So now they’re looking for green chemicals to accomplish the same things. Instead of surfactants, they can use detergents instead,” he said.

Upcoming meetings

The law firm of Dagger, Johnston, Miller, Ogilvie and Hampson of Lancaster is holding a meeting about oil and gas leases and recent offers to acquire leases. According to the firm, these offers are often less than what landowners have received in other counties.

“The law firm will provide information about a landowners group that has been formed to allow landowners to work together to negotiate the best lease possible with maximized terms for financial benefits and land protection,” the firm wrote in a statement. “Third-party companies are attempting to persuade landowners in this area to sign oil and gas leases for payments and terms less favorable than what landowners received in other counties.”

The meeting will be from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday, March 8 at the Marion Township Community Center at 30737 Logan-Horns Mill Road.

In addition, the Ohio State University Extension - Hocking County and the Hocking Soil & Water Conservation District will host a public educational meeting focused on leasing land for oil and natural gas development. The meeting will be at the Logan-Hocking Middle School Theatre from 6:30 to 8:45 p.m. on March 21.

Speakers include Cliff Little, OSU associate professor and extension educator for Guernsey and Noble counties; Chris Penrose, OSU associate professor and extension educator for Morgan County; and Michael McCormac from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Oil & Gas.