Brine Storage, Not Fracking, Warrants Concern

Sophia Ottoni-Wilhelm, Contributing Writer

Just last week, Ohio’s Supreme Court ruled that the decision to ban hydraulic fracking can only be made by the state government and no longer by county and city municipalities. As staff writer Bob Downing summarized in the Akron Beacon Journal on Feb. 17, “The decision takes local control of drilling away from communities and supports the state as the continued main overseer of drilling.”

The 4–3 vote comes to the great disappointment of many in our community, as it counteracts the city of Oberlin’s Nov. 2013 vote to prohibit all extraction of natural gases in this district. While the Supreme Court’s decision is a definite step back, it should be used as motivation to refocus our attention within the local environmentalist movement.

As a community, we are clearly on the right track. The City Council’s ruling makes Oberlin’s negative attitudes toward fracking clear — an attitude that, frankly, should be adopted by more communities in the area. However, it was a decorative statement and nothing more. Geologically, this region is not structured in a way that is conducive to the formation and storage of natural gas. Dennis Hubbard, chair of the Geology department, said, “The oil and gas reserves near Oberlin that were exploited in the early 20th century have been largely depleted, and the industry focus has moved to the southeast.” Frankly and simply put, hydraulic drilling won’t be happening here. If it did happen, I guarantee it wouldn’t result in “teeth ‘snapping off like pretzels,’” (The Oberlin Review, “Campus Relies on Fracking in Transition to Coal,” Nov. 15, 2013) or any of the sensationalist fallacies often accidentally circulated by the media. These kinds of statements should not be used to garner support for a cause. The anti-fracking movement will be largely unsuccessful “unless we [as a community] home in on a facet of this problem that can be combated locally,” as CJ Blair wrote in last week’s column (The Oberlin Review, “Social Movements Must Incorporate Environmental Justice,” Feb. 20, 2015).

For the northeast Ohio anti-fracking movement, the Big Bad Wolf is brine storage. Brine is definitely something to get upset about. The first rule of war is to know your enemy. Brine is the enemy. It is the name given to the mixture of fluids resulting from the piping of millions of gallons of water a day at high pressure into the earth in order to force out natural gas. Brine is typically around 90 percent water, 9.5 percent sand (used to prop open subterranean cracks that result from the high pressure drilling) and 0.4 percent chemicals that make the fluid more friction-resistant. Halliburton reports that the 0.4 percent is made of “acids, slickants [and] surfactant,” which is churned up into 6,000–640,000 gallons of water used to pump natural gas out of a single well. The variability is dependent on the amount of natural gas contained in the subterranean structure.

The components I listed in the previous paragraph do not total 100 percent. To be perfectly honest, I can’t tell you what’s in brine. No one in the scientific community can.

This last 0.1 percent is loosely called “biocides” by the natural gas companies that use it. The only people who know what brine is made up of are workers at the companies that create it. Aside from that, the only people who are able to study it closely are the doctors who have to sign over their right to disclose what it is in order to treat its victims. Professor Hubbard noted, “Many of these deep shales contain naturally occurring radioactive materials.” These materials are forced to the surface during hydraulic fracking, adding a radioactive element to brine and making its careful storage of utmost importance.

Very recently, several wells in Pennsylvania adopted the practice of recycling a third of their brine into reusable water for the fracking process. While this is a step in the right direction, brine is still being stored, and in Ohio, too. The Environmental Protection Agency reported in December of last year that “much of the frack water produced in Pennsylvania gets trucked to Ohio, which has more disposal wells.” It is trucked here, accruing a carbon footprint, only to be stored temporarily in underground wells around us. Our sub-ground geologic formations, such as the 6,000-year-old Clinton Sandstone, are targeted as brine disposal wells because of their permeability, or ability to take up water. These more permeable strata of rock can be used to hold brine, while less permeable rocks lie above and below. These less permeable rocks, composed of shale and schist, are called structural caps.

Nothing lasts forever. Eventually these underground storage structures give way, and bits of brine leak out into nearby water supplies, affecting the health of community members and damaging the soil in an agriculture-dependent state. The week before last, CJ Blair commented on local anti-fracking initiatives in his column. Blair wrote, “By virtue of the movement, the goal is not to reverse a systemic injustice, but to invest in the future (The Oberlin Review, Feb. 20, 2015).”

With a little creativity and some hard work, I believe that Oberlin has at least somewhat prepared me to work toward sustainable change in my community. Here at Oberlin, attention and energy should be directed toward banning the storage of brine beneath our homes, schools and workplaces. As Wendell Berry once wrote, “The soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest, and under the pavement, the soil is dreaming of grass.” We should let the Earth dream.