ASHLAND – Anti-fracking activists and pro-oil and gas industry representatives converged Thursday at an Ashland County Commissioners meeting.
George Stark, director of internal affairs for Cabot Oil and Gas’s north region, gave a brief update on the status of his company’s exploratory drilling in the southern part of the county.
“You may already know, we have put three pads together in the county that are in various phases of development,” Stark said.
The company is looking for fossil fuels– either oil or natural gas– below the Utica Shale formation. Cabot plans to drill at least five exploratory wells by the end of the year.
After drilling about a mile below the ground vertically and then about two miles horizontally, Cabot uses a process called hyraulic fracturing to extract the fuels. The process involves pumping water, sand and additives into the well bore, forcing fluids into perforations in the well. That causes fractures in the rock formation which allow trapped gas to flow.
Stark said his company put together a pamphlet of information, which Cabot mailed to 5,000 landowners in the areas of the drilling sites. The pamphlet information also was placed as an advertisement in the local newspaper.
Working with county Emergency Management Agency director Mark Rafeld, Cabot set up meetings and rig tours for 10 volunteer fire departments in the area to explain operations and prepare for any possible rig fires.
“We believe we’ve hit all the fire departments that would either be primary or secondary,” Stark said.
Additionally, Stark noted, the company set up a local office in Jeromesville to answer questions and host meetings.
“The goal is to make sure conversations are taking place, working with landowners, working with stakeholders and working with those that are helping us… We’re also working closely with our local labor force to ensure the jobs that can will stay here,” Stark said.
Later in the meeting, Elaine Tanner, an organizer with Hayesville Community on Fracked Gas, questioned the county commissioners about the county’s readiness to respond to any water contamination that could result from Cabot’s activity.
“I think we need to have somebody talk to people to say what happens when there’s an emergency with our water. How do we find out? Who’s going to be the one to come knocking on our door?” Tanner said.
Tanner cited incidents of water contamination at other oil and gas drilling sites and presented a letter from an anti-fracking organizer in Susquehanna County, PA who wrote about contamination from Cabot’s activities in that county.
“If our auquifer is contaminated and all these residental wells out in the county are drawing from this auquifer and there’s a breech, we need to know,” Tanner said.
Tanner said she would like to see the formation of a community advisiory board as well as the expansion of water testing in the county.
Her group is also planning a Sept. 29 Neighborhood Health and Education Fair at the Loudonville Public Library, and Tanner requested that a representative from the county’s Emergency Management Agency be present to answer questions.
“If you answer the questions up front, you don’t have as many problems,” she said.
When asked by Tanner about the sale of water to Cabot, county commissioners responded by saying the county does not provide water to residents. That work is left to the city and villages within the county.
Another Hayesville Community on Fracked Gas member, Deborah Fleming, said she has heard that response before.
“Most of the officials I’ve been talking to say just that, and the Loudonville mayor said, ‘This is not my purview. I don’t have the responsibility, et cetera, et cetera,'” Fleming said. “The time is always right to do the right thing, and history is littered with examples of people who said, ‘I can’t do anything. It’s not my purview. It’s not my responsibility,’ and then someone else has to pick up the pieces later.”
Fleming referred to hydraulic fracturing a a “hideous practice” that is “ruining the county” and expressed concerns about property values near her home, which is four miles from one of Cabot’s first well sites.
“I bought my land to live in the country, not to live in an industrial zone,” she said. “I find myself suddenly in an industrial zone. I’d like to know why that’s fair?”
Fleming went on to urge county officials to look out for “the small people.”
“We are David facing Goliath without a slingshot, and we’ve got nobody to speak for us,” she said.
Stark responded to Fleming’s concerns.
“I love the word hideous, but our operations are not that,” he said. “They are as professional as you can imagine.”
Despite anecdotes to the contrary, Stark argued, property values are rising and tourism in growing in Susquehanna County, PA.
Jeff Sellers of the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local #1216 in Mansfield spoke in support of oil and gas development on behalf of his members in Richland, Ashland, Morrow, Crawford and Knox counties. Several other members of the union attended the meeting but did not speak.
“We have been involved with several major oil and gas projects over the last several years, most recently in the Utopia Pipeline that came through Ashland County and the Rover Pipeline,” Sellers said. “Our members live in every community across the five counties that I’ve mentioned, including right here in Ashland. We have folks here now who are supporting these projects who are certainly in favor of oil and gas development.”
Sellers said oil and gas activity in the area has given new members of his union opportunities to apprentice in the field and gain experience. He also noted that some of his members live in the Hillsdale Local School District, where officials expect to gain enough new tax revenue from the Rover Pipeline to build new schools without raising taxes.
“We support oil and gas development, and we stand here ready to build the next wave that comes through Ashland County,” Sellers said. “It’s a good thing for our members, and we’re ready to support their efforts.”
Commissioners thanked all the visitors for attending the meeting and voicing their opinions on the issue.
After the meeting, Stark said his company is looking to construct at least two more drilling pads and wells this year in addition to the three that are already being developed in Ashland County’s Green, Mohican and Vermillion townships.
“We’re looking at Wayne, Holmes, Richland and Ashland (counties),” Stark said. “The goal is five by year’s end.”
Stark said his company wants the fourth and fifth wells to be south of the first three, which are generally situated around U.S. 30.
After this year, if Cabot finds the fuels it is looking for, the company could add additional sites at a growing rate.
Stark said Cabot is likely to drill 70 wells this year in Susquehanna County, PA, where the company has been operating there nearly a decade.