BOARDMAN - The director of the Ohio EPA says his goal always has been to reduce millions of gallons of water used in the state's oil and natural gas drilling process, but though it sounds promising, environmentalists, businesses and local government didn't react with great optimism.
Ohio Environmental Protection Agency Director Scott Nally spoke Monday at a Youngstown-Warren Regional Chamber breakfast event here.
Nally called water usage and disposal the "main issue" raised by opponents of the hydraulic fracturing process, commonly called "fracking." But he said new methods being explored by the industry are replacing the millions of gallons of water with other propellants such as carbon dioxide or propane.
"Any technology that is taking us down that path to reduce our need to use water, I would support," Nally said.
A spokeswoman for national environmental group Sierra Club wasn't so quick to agree.
Deb Nardone, director of Sierra Club's Beyond Natural Gas campaign, said while she agrees with the concern over the use of millions of gallons of water, most of which will never return to the earth's water cycle, she said the club has equal concerns about ground water contamination when using other types of chemical propellant.
Tribune Chronicle / Brenda J. Linert
Scott Nally, left, director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, and Warren Mayor Doug Franklin participated in a panel discussion Monday about hydraulic fracturing.
"It still uses water, and I don't know how strongly they have researched it," Nardone said. "We still don't know what the water contamination potential is."
Dan Alfaro, a spokesman for the Ohio petroleum trade group Energy in Depth, said the industry does do thorough research as it attempts to determine new methods of gas and oil extraction.
As it is, about 3 to 5 millions of gallons of water are mixed with chemicals and special sand, and pumped into each natural gas well to crack the porous underground rock and release minerals like natural gas and oil. Released along with the minerals is salty water which returns to the surface along with the chemical-laced propellant.
The salty waste water, known as "brine," is disposed of mostly by injecting it back into deep underground pockets for permanent disposal. Some brine is treated at Warren's Patriot Water treatment facility, then turned over to the city's water pollution control department for disposal.
"Technology is going to be very different in the next two years than it is today,'' Nally said. "If you can go from 5 million to 500,000 (gallons of water) and use a different propellant, now you are looking at a game changer."
It could also be a game changer for companies like Patriot Water that make their living treating the brine water, and to cities like Warren which re-treats the water before disposing it and that also has deals to sell clean raw water to the drillers.
Warren Mayor Doug Franklin, who attended and participated in Monday's discussion with Nally, said at least for now, Warren is taking advantage of the opportunity to sell water to the industry. That is a way for the city to compensate for revenue lost with last year's shutdown of RG Steel mill in Warren.
"It's important for us to take advantage of this opportunity," Franklin said. "I think we have to put it in a time perspective, so we have an opportunity to sell water right now, we need to take advantage of it."
Andrew Blocksom, president of Patriot Water Treatment, expressed little concern that new processes could hurt his business.
"There have been a lot of them (alternatives) that have been tried, and they haven't figured it out yet," Blocksom said. "We are always hopeful that technology can advance. At the same time we are trying to stay ahead of the industry."
Patriot's method of treatment and the city's ultimate disposal of the brine water back into Ohio's ground water, including the Mahoning River, remains a controversial issue under debate by Ohio's regulators and the judicial system.
Monday, Nally said it is the release of the treated brine back into the ground water system - not Patriot's treatment process - with which he disagrees.
"I don't like the fact that they are going to the city of Warren with it," Nally said, hinting that a better answer might be for Patriot to sell the treated brine back to the drillers for re-use.
Blocksom said it would not be economical for companies to truck the brine water to his facility for treatment and then back great distances to the well sites. He maintains his argument that the treated water is safe for disposal back into Ohio's ground water.
"I am 100 percent recycling. I am giving it back to the environment to be reused," Blocksom said.