COLUMBUS - Ohio began issuing its first new permits Tuesday for deep injection of chemically-laced wastewater from oil and gas drilling since a New Year's Eve quake in Youngstown prompted an unofficial statewide moratorium.
Rick Simmers, head of the state's Division of Oil and Gas Resources, said the first four new permits went out Tuesday to sites in Athens, Portage and Washington counties. He said another 28 sites will be permitted in small batches of five or under in coming months.
"We never had an official moratorium on issuing the permits, but we've asked the companies to work cooperatively with us as we upgrade our statutes and rules to make them even more stringent, and the companies have," Simmer said in an interview with The Associated Press.
He said state natural resources officials now believe new regulations include ample safeguards - including the ability to order or conduct seismic testing before, during and after drilling - to protect against future quakes.
Millions of gallons of wastewater from the drilling technique hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are injected deep into the earth at such wells. The practice has been ridiculed and protested by environmental groups, and defended by well operators as safe and responsible.
Gov. John Kasich imposed a moratorium within a seven-mile radius of a Youngstown deep-injection site after a series of a dozen quakes that included a 4.0 magnitude tremor later linked to activity there. Simmers said Tuesday would mark an end to formal restrictions in the area, but that the offending well and those in the vicinity have no foreseeable plans to operate.
D&L Energy in Youngstown, the well's operator in northeast Ohio, sought state permission in February to re-open the shuttered well to conduct independent research to prove the well didn't cause the quakes. But Simmers said the company hasn't yet presented adequate information needed to be re-opened.
Kasich also issued an executive order this summer giving Simmers authority to order preliminary tests at proposed well sites, to prevent drilling where tests fail, and to restrict injection pressure. The state also can order installation of automatic shut-off valves and monitor for leakage.
Simmers said the EPA turned well oversight over to Ohio years ago because the state's regulations surpass those of the federal government.
The first round of new wells permitted Tuesday included one in Athens County's Troy Township, one in Portage County's Deerfield Township and two in Washington County's Newport Township. One of the Washington County wells was previously operated as an oil and gas production well.