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Senate President makes it clear: no moratorium on 'fracking'

Says media scaring public

Those calling for Ohio to slap a moratorium on fracking can pretty much forget about it.

Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus (R-New Richmond) didn't come right out and say that during a fracking "summit" in Columbus on Wednesday, but the message was unmistakable.

Neihaus said that opponents of the drilling technique, in which water, sand and chemicals are injected into deep underground shale formations to extract oil and gas, are substituting scare tactics for science.

His contention was backed up during a three-hour briefing provided by veteran geologist Jeff Brami and representatives of the American Petroleum Institute (API), who said frackers are committed to "openness, balance, consensus and due process."

Citing a lifetime of experience in drilling and mining, Brami told a roomful of interested parties that, "API is the gold standard for the drilling industry." He said the industry is committed to being a "good neighbor" – before, during and after fracking operations.

"We're going to put the surface area into the same condition as when we arrived," Brami assured, saying site remediation produces as many jobs as initial construction, citing as an example the botanists who map site vegetation in advance and replace the same trees and plants in the same exact location, he said.

Whereas a standard drilling site can be built on a quarter acre, fracking affects a much larger area, said Brami. "You're talking about a site the size of a couple of football fields," he said, describing a generational impact. "It might be 30 years. It might be 50 years. The span of time is enormous."

Brami acknowledged the objections of some, including residents of his own Texas subdivision, where drilling rights have been sold. "I don't like the noise when the heavy machinery arrives, but for the developer who wants the mineral rights, that's just the cash register you hear."

Brami acknowledged the fears of some who say fracking may well contaminate area ground water and underground aquifers. "The prudent operators, the honest operators – you're never going to see them backing into a creek and dumping something. I've never seen it."

He said hydraulic "flow-back" water is generally stored in engineered, sealed ponds and can be recycled for reuse in the fracking process. It can also be disposed of offsite.

"Can it go to a municipal [plant], or does it need to go to an industrial wastewater treatment plant?" Brami asked, noting that it is the question responsible operators must answer.  In Ohio, he added, the fracker is limited to industrial disposal.

As for aquifers, Brami said underground pools near eastern Ohio's Marcellus shale formation are close to ground level and typically separated by thousands of feet to a mile from the fracking site below ground.

"I'm aware of no examples of an aquifer contaminated by a fracking operation," he said. As for chemicals used in the hydraulic process, he said, "Most of the additives in fracking fluid are under your kitchen sink."

During questions, one participant asked about media reports suggesting operators resist disclosing chemicals. "Whether it is a health risk, a corrosive, a carcinogen," Brami responded, "it is not hidden. It is disclosed. When you hear that from the media, it's not true."

On related earthquake worries in the Youngstown area, Brami said he is only aware of "seismic activity" in one fracking operation, presumably outside Ohio. "It's very, very small."

Niehaus said legislation passed by the General Assembly two years ago to tighten drilling regulations (SB 165) was actually brought to him by the industry and contained "some of the most comprehensive reporting requirements regarding hydraulic fracking."

He said the need for the bill was more or less unanimous. "The industry came to me and said, 'We really need to make some changes.' The regulators in the administration came to me and said, 'We really need to make some changes.'"

Niehaus said frackers adopted a self-regulating attitude about oversight changes. "It's important that the inspections are thorough and timely," executives told him, "and we're willing to pay for that."

He added that SB165 had support from both sides of the aisle. "This wasn't a partisan issue. This is about jobs. We don't want to stand in the way of economic development."

Niehaus said the news media "continue to throw up a scare and talk about the dangers of fracking. Let's listen to science in this case."

He said the General Assembly will be working on the issue in the 10 months that remain in the 129th General Assembly.

"There is a lot of work to be done between now and when we break for the summer," Niehaus said. Noting that he and many of his colleagues will continue to address fracking issues in Columbus, he said they will have two primary concerns: public perception, and the regulatory scheme.

"We've been fracking in this state for 40 years. We need to get an answer back to the average citizen who doesn't understand the process – who doesn't live anywhere near these operations," he said.

In developing regulations, Niehaus said bill sponsors will seek to learn as much as possible from neighboring and Midwest states such as Pennsylvania and North Dakota. "We have other resources that maybe Pennsylvania doesn't have," he added.

The General Assembly may also adopt higher severance taxes on oil and gas commodities from fracking. "That discussion is going on right now," he said. "I know the governor is in discussions with the oil industry on that issue."

As for the various taxes, corporate and otherwise, collected on commercial fracking operations, he said, "Ohio tends to be a little lower than the surrounding states – much lower than Pennsylvania, and lower than states out west."

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