Questions about ODNR oversight

At a time when even the most ardent proponents of hydraulic fracturing are calling for strict oversight of the oil and natural gas industry, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources is falling short.

Facts that have come to light in the wake of environmental violations on Salt Springs Road along the Trumbull-Mahoning line expose flaws in Ohio law and at the ODNR that are reducing confidence in the agency’s ability to regulate.

Count us among those who enthusiastically embrace hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for its potential to revive the Mahoning Valley economy and have worldwide implications that help the entire U.S. We, and even the big oil companies that stand to profit most, have often said one of the few things that could go wrong is a rogue in the industry committing a serious environmental crime.

Strict oversight is important to help prevent such acts and to instill confidence in the public, which continues to hold reservations about the method of extracting oil and gas from shale rock and safely disposing of the byproduct known as brine.

After Ben Lupo, one of the owners of D&L Energy and Hardock Excavating on Salt Springs Road, was indicted for allegedly ordering a Hardrock employee to dump brine into a drain that emptied into a Mahoning River tributary, the Tribune Chronicle found that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 149 production well violations against D&L and the ODNR issued 27 disposal well violations and 43 production well violatoins against Lupo companies. The fact that Lupo and his businesses could continuously receive state approval to drill new production and injection wells raises eyebrows.

The ODNR said last week that Ohio law doesn’t allow the agency to consider violations elsewhere when deciding whether to approve a new permit. If that’s true, then a long time ago, when it was obvious that permits were being awarded to somebody with a litany of violations, the ODNR should have adopted a forceful legislative agenda to rewrite the law accordingly.

The ODNR last month stripped both Hardrock and D&L Energy of their licenses to haul and dispose of oilfield waste. D&L operates six injection wells in Ashtabula, Mahoning and Trumbull counties. Injection wells are deep deposits in which oilfield waste and brine are injected for permanent disposal.

However, Lupo’s permits for D&L Energy to operate oil and natural gas production wells remain intact, and ODNR officials say, at least for now, they have no just cause to revoke licenses of the dozens of production wells he operates in eastern Ohio.

”Nothing that came up in the investigation is tied to a production well,” agency spokeswoman Bethany McCorkle said, referring to the Salt Springs Road investigation. ”Legally we don’t have a way to tie them together.”

Now D&L Energy officials are arguing that their company is being ”punished for the conduct of the employees of another company, Hardrock Excavating, LLC,” in an appeal filed Monday fighting for the return of its state permits. Since Lupo owns both companies, the appeal is saying that Lupo is being unfairly punished for the actions of Lupo.

But based on past practice, no matter how illogical that sounds to rest of us, those at ODNR appear likely to agree with D&L.