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Ohio EPA fast-tracks fracking permits
The Ohio EPA wants to minimize the impact of fracking on wetlands by encouraging drillers to choose a fast-track permit or face a sea of red-tape

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
The Ohio EPA is proposing a fast-track permit that could lessen shale gas drilling's impact on wetlands. The new general permit will apply to fracking operations like this one in Carroll County.
Courtesy of Tim Rudell
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The public comment period ends today on a proposal to fast-track the permitting process for shale gas drillers in Ohio IF they minimize their impact on sensitive wetlands.  

WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair reports, it’s a carrot and stick approach where an environmental group may hold the stick.

EPA's fast-track fracking permit

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While the federal EPA is studying how shale gas drilling may pollute ground water, the Ohio EPA trying to address the impact fracking could have on surface waters.

Any activity that impacts wetlands in Ohio requires approval from the state, and a plan to replace those wetlands.

The Ohio EPA already offers this fast-track general permit to industries ranging from mining to dry-cleaning, if the companies promise to minimize their impact on air and water quality.  But until now, the shale-gas industry has not had the fast-track option.

Ohio EPA’s Mike Settles says the new permit limits the impact of fracking operations to less than half-an-acre of a medium-quality wetland and damage to fewer than 300 feet of streams.

“We want to provide a stream-lined mechanism for these companies, this industry, to do what it wants to do without adversely impacting the environment.  If they’re going to adversely impact the environment, then we want them to compensate for those impacts.”

One environmental group is giving the plan the thumbs up.

“We like the fact that it excludes the high-quality streams and wetlands.”

Anthony Sasson with the Nature Conservancy says, by encouraging drillers to avoid pristine waters, the new general permit gets the carrot and stick balance right.

“The general permit is not necessarily lowering the standards, but it is definitely speeding up the process.”

But even under the fast-track permit, operators will need to fix or replace wetlands and streams impacted by drilling through a process called mitigation.   

How much mitigation the fracking boom will generate is anyone’s guess.  Chesapeake Energy, for example, has leased 1.5 million acres in eastern Ohio, and could drill 12,000 fracking wells in the next few years.

Given that volume, state agencies will face a backlog of impacted streams and wetlands that will require mitigation.

And that’s where Vince Messerly of the Ohio Wetland Foundation says the system begins to break down.

“We just don’t know how that’s going to happen yet.”

Messerly wonders whether state agencies like the EPA are ready to handle a flood of mitigations from the shale-gas drilling boom.

“If the state will actually be doing the implementation, or if they will be hiring third parties to do that work.  And we don’t know to what standard they’ll hold themselves to.  Those are all questions that we would like to find answers for.”

The Ohio Wetland Foundation is one of a handful of groups that run mitigation banks that operate in some parts of the state.

The banks get funding from developers that destroy wetlands and use that money to buy new wetlands or restore old ones.

But streams are a different story. Messerly says lack of clarity from the state is hampering his group’s efforts. 

“We have not pursued a stream mitigation bank in Ohio for the most part because there are no policies that establish how stream mitigation is to be evaluated.” 

Eastern Ohio, where most of the fracking will take place, does not have mitigation banks.

So Ohio recently provided a $25,000 grant to the Nature Conservancy to develop a program to address a backlog of streams and wetland mitigation.  The Nature Conservancy’s Bill Stanley says his group hopes to have a plan in place early next year.

“I think we could try and coach from the sideline and provide input, but we decided this is so important that we should get more involved and exercise more leadership.”

The proposed fast-track general permit for shale gas drilling could be in place early this spring.  The public comment period ends today.

Related Links & Resources
Fracking next door

Ohio EPA shale gas general permit website

Listener Comments:

Protecting the environment is fine, but forcing their restrictions - not what citizens have agreed is detrimental, on businesses is not fine.
The EPA sets standards, private businesses and consumers pay - "If they’re going to adversely impact the environment, then we want them to compensate for those impacts.” - sounds like the EPA, not citizens have the power and control.
People pay taxes so the government can do their job - why aren't these taxes used to help businesses meet EPA demands, rather than taxing business to meet a demand/leadership that might be better defined as you have no choice, do what I say.

Posted by: the tax,man on January 14, 2012 9:01AM
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