Ohio on verge of old-style oil rush with fracking poised to press ahead

Mon, Oct 22, 2012, 01:00

The drilling debate is dividing the community, politicians and experts, writes CARL O’BRIENin Youngstown

IN BETTER days, Youngstown was the “city of homes”. A blue-collar worker could get a decent job in one of the many steel mills and quickly aspire to own a home. In the 1950s, it had one of the highest home-ownership rate of any city in the United States.

“Flames leap into the sky, throwing the outlines of the city into relief. They are a familiar nightly symbol of the city’s activity. Youngstown is one of the great steel centres of the world,” reads a promotional leaflet from the era. “Men come here with their families. They prosper.”

Today, thousands of those same homes sit dead-eyed, with boarded-up windows, peeling paintwork and collapsed roofs. They’re a haunting reminder of the collapse of the steel industry 30 years ago, which sent this city into a spiral of decline, depopulation and unemployment.

In all, the city lost more than half of its population. Now, city authorities want to tear down the estimated 5,000-plus officially condemned or vacant homes and shrink the metropolitan area to a more manageable size.

It’s an ambitious and costly exercise, but cash-strapped authorities haven’t been able to afford to embark on the project.

Until now. The city sits on gas-rich shale deposits. Last week, authorities formally decided to lease rights to 180 acres of public land in and around the city to oil companies which plan to drill and frack for natural gas or oil.

It’s a potential windfall of millions of dollars, but critics and environmentalists say fracking – or pumping water and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas – is too risky and carries risks such as polluted drinking water and earthquakes.

It’s a highly polarised argument that is dividing the community, politicians and experts in Ohio. And, in many ways, it’s a prism through which to view the wider national dilemma facing the US in this election year.

Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree that energy independence is crucial. But they differ sharply on how to go about it. While the president wants to invest more in alternative energy sources, his Republican challenger blames rising fuel costs on obstacles Mr Obama is placing in the way of oil, gas and coal exploration.

Jamie Frederick (34) bought her home just outside Youngstown about three years ago as a chance to get away from it all. “It was described in the real estate brochure as quiet country living,” says Frederick, who works as a clerk in a hardware store. “It was a dream home and a place to raise a family.” She didn’t realise her neighbour had leased the land to a natural gas company which had fracked the shale beneath her home.

Soon after moving in, she started to get sick – headaches, nausea and other illnesses which resulted in the removal of her gall bladder – but didn’t know what was causing it.

“I was being advised to drink more water, that maybe I was dehydrated . . . but I was being poisoned and didn’t know it. My gall bladder completely stopped working,” she says.

Frederick says tests she has commissioned indicate that contaminants such as methane leaked into her water supply. She would move house tomorrow, she says, but can’t afford to. “If I get a chance to move in future, it’ll be to a place where there isn’t shale under my feet.”

Water safety is just part of the picture. Youngstown doesn’t have a history of earthquakes. But in March last year, Susie Beiersdorfer, a geology tutor, was sitting with friends in the local deli when the ground shook and windows rattled.

“We all just looked at each other. Everyone felt a bit shaken up. We looked up the US geological society’s website and saw there had been an earthquake.” In all, 12 small earthquakes recorded in the area over the following nine months, the strongest of which recorded 4.0 on the Richter scale.

Work at an injection well close to the city was halted by authorities and there haven’t been earthquakes ever since.

“They say this is safe?” says Beiersdorfer, whose husband – a geology professor – is also opposed to fracking. “It just doesn’t make sense to take money from drilling to improve neighbourhoods if, at the same time, we’re harming those areas. Who’s going to want to live there?” The industry takes another view. The Ohio Oil and Gas Association says fracking isn’t a new technology. It estimates that some 80,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured around the state for the past 60 years.

“It has a proven track record that is supported by numerous state regulators and organisations,” a spokesman said. “Not a single case of drinking water contamination has ever been recorded. Not one.”

It quotes research which states that natural gas in some water wells in shale areas can be traced to natural sources and were most likely present before gas exploration took place. As for earthquakes, it says these are “rare and isolated events”.

For now, fracking looks set to press ahead in the area. And Ohio is on the verge of an old-style oil rush. Companies are hiring drillers, truck-drivers, pipeline specialists, electricians and many more skilled people. Farmers, use to scraping a living, are selling their mineral rights and getting big money in return.

“‘You can’t buy a tractor, a diesel pick-up truck or a pontoon boat within 200 miles of here,” says David Collins, president of local firm, Diamond Steel. “Some fracking hasn’t been done well, because of where they placed it. But, look, we’re running out of energy, we’re using it up and not putting anything back. Either we keep going, or quit and be cold.”

Danny Welsh owns Greystone Gas and Oil near Youngstown and is involved in negotiating mining leases with landowners.

“When I sit in front of a landowner, I tell the truth,” he says. “I’ve never had a single problem.” He maintains that new-found wealth is helping to transform people’s livelihoods. A farmer with five acres of land can expect to make anywhere between $25,000 and $30,000.