Even though it was a vertical well, the issue of gas migrating from horizontal wells into aquifers through rock fractures is something that frightens many people living over shale prospects. So far, only 35 horizontal wells have been drilled in Ohio, according to state regulators.
"I think it's a good idea to drill for natural gas, but I don't think they should drill in neighborhoods with high-density population," said Dale Markowitz, lawyer for the Paynes and their neighbors. Markowitz more often represents landowners, churches and golf courses that want to lease their mineral rights and get royalties.
"If you follow the rules in place, the odds are pretty low that you'll have a problem," he says. "But you could have a drilling disaster no matter what."
A need for regulation
Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus shale has already been heavily developed, has not provided a role model for Ohioans. Among the more than 4,200 shale gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania, there have been enough problems to provide fodder for Ohio's drilling foes.
The most common problems occur on the surface. In February, for example, Pennsylvania fined Chesapeake $565,000 for sediment that washed off both an access road and a drilling pad into a river, damaging filters at a water treatment plant. According to the environmental group Clean Water Action, in 2010 there were 1,200 violations of environmental regulations by gas drillers in the Marcellus, a quarter of them from leaks or poor construction of waste pits for fluids that flow back to the surface after fracking.
Kasich has moved to balance the economic and safety issues. "You cannot degrade the environment at the same time you're producing this industry. It is not acceptable," he said in his state of the state address in February. "And it's not a false choice. The biggest companies know that you need to have tough environmental rules. They can't be complicated. They can't be over the top, but we need to have them because we can't have some yahoo come into the state and damage this whole industry because they're irresponsible."
Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols notes that the best drilling prospects, in the eastern and southeast regions, are in "that part of the state where people have been ignored far too long." (Portions of the Utica shale also run beneath the Marcellus and into Pennsylvania.)
Many experts say that cheap natural gas in the southeast part of the state could also lure industries that rely heavily on gas. Shell Oil has said it would build a chemical plant in the area, but hasn't decided which state. Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio are all in the running; each is vying with generous packages of tax incentives, pipeline routes and permit expediting. An announcement is due in the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, the drillers are hiring. Jake Holland, a civil engineering major who graduated from the University of Akron in 2009, served tables and tended bar at restaurants until Chesapeake Energy hired him as a field technician eight months ago. Now he works with landowners and county engineers to figure out the best routes for trucks and locations for drilling pads. Sure of a regular paycheck, he hopes to buy a house in the next year or so.
"We cannot let our fears outweigh the potential," Kasich said.
At the same time, Nichols says, Kasich is "looking at regulatory processes to make sure that when companies come in here they leave the place better than when they arrived." The state proposed tighter regulations in October and Kasich has backed a tripling in the number of regulators - who now number two per county - and a tripling in their small budget.
Environmentalists say it's a step in the right direction, but not enough. A group of organizations proposed 19 pages of technical revisions. The state issued a new set of regulations that environmental groups are still reviewing.
"They've put some good things in there, but they still have a long ways to go before they're up to the highest standards," said Brianna Mordick, a geologist working for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This is an industrial process. You can reduce the risk of environmental problems, but you can never eliminate it."
So far, Ohio's main role in the shale gas business has been to bury Pennsylvania's waste.
Because of its geology, Pennsylvania has a limited number of waste disposal wells. So most of the state's fracking chemicals and the nasty stuff sucked back up from the shale rock gets injected into what the Environmental Protection Agency calls class 2 wells in Ohio, which has 177 of them.
The D&L Energy well in Youngstown was one of them. D&L Energy began drilling it in July 2010 and waste injections began in December 2010. Three months later, the first earthquakes struck. Youngstown had never had one before.
John Armbruster, a seismologist with Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who investigated the tremors, says that the well was 1.7 miles deep. It was supposed to dispose of waste in sandstone, which is a couple hundred million years old, right above the basement rock, which is a billion years old.
The waste is pumped in at extremely high pressures - high enough to lift the Empire State Building, Armbruster says. It'd be like having the weight of an SUV in the palm of your hand.
The D&L well happened to be right on top of, or very close to, a fault, he adds.
"I compare it to a hydraulic jack," Armbruster said. "The pressure in the well is a thousand pounds per square inch. Put that over a piece of fault that's 1 kilometer by 1 kilometer, and you have enough pressure to move a piece of the Earth."
(D&L Energy's chief executive, Ben Lupo, did not return phone calls seeking comment.)
On Dec. 30, the state ordered the shutdown of the well and a handful of others in the Youngstown area. On Dec. 31, a quake registered 4.0 on the Richter scale, 40 times the energy of earlier ones.
How will the politics of this play out? GOP presidential candidates have supported expanded oil and gas drilling. Obama, however, has been staking out a middle ground - more shale gas drilling, but with safeguards. While it might not please environmental groups or industry groups, it might be in line with Ohio's uncertain voters.
"Ohio's economy obviously needs jobs, and the consensus is that this will create jobs and bring tax revenue," Quinnipiac's Brown said. "So there's an inclination to want to make sure that Ohio gets those economic benefits. This is also an electorate with a sense of risk averseness on anything that involves safety and environmental questions. The challenge for a politician is to walk that line."