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Saturday, February 2, 2013

PA Is All Fracked Up

I want to thank two of my friends, Mark and Dana, for each posting this graphic (below) on their Facebook pages last week.  Because it got me thinking that I haven’t commented for a while on Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale natural gas boom that has entirely changed the landscape of much of the northern tier of the state, wrapping down along the Allegheny Plateau through southwestern PA and on into West Virginia. 

Drilling site in Dimmock, PA, with dozens of portable fractionation tanks lined

up to contain drilling waste water. (photo credit: http://www.theithacajournal.com)

 As a geologist, I have nothing against responsible development of Pennsylvania's energy resources.  I understand how and why the hydraulic fracturing process works.  I understand all of the settling lagoons and fractionation tanks that are needed to contain all of the wastewater before it’s taken somewhere for treatment or reinjected to drill the next well.  I understand all of the service roads to remote well pads that must be cleared and built just to get the equipment and materials to a new well pad location.

I also understand what can go wrong in the process.  When you have drillers and other subcontractors coming here to Pennsylvania from out of state to build well pads and wastewater lagoons and to drill a series of wells over 10,000 feet deep at each well pad, and when you have gas companies pushing their subcontractors to do more and do it faster, you are bound to get thousands of violations.  Realistically though, these 3,025 violations are only the ones that inspectors from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection actually see evidence of and write up.  So, unfortunately, there could be a few hundred or a few thousand more violations that have taken place but were not documented.

These data were compiled by NPR StateImpact, which is a collaboration of National Public Radio reporters and local reporters who cover the fiscal and environmental impact of Pennsylvania’s booming energy economy, focusing on Marcellus Shale drilling.  They acquired lists of violations from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the state agency in charge of regulating natural gas drilling in PA.  The article in which these data were first published explains that these 3,025 violations were documented on 8,982 active gas wells from January 2009 until June 2012.  That’s three and a half years, with two and one-third violations per day.  

Gas companies would quickly point out that tens of thousands of horizontal wells have been drilled in the Marcellus Shale in the past five years, so the wells with violations (might) account for some small percentage of the total wells.  But to me, that's a carpetbagger rationalization for carelessness.  No violation is acceptable.  The PADEP should hold the gas companies to a higher standard.  Pennsylvania is the only natural gas producing state in the country that does not charge gas companies a severance tax based on the value of gas they produce and send to market.  If the PA state legislature and Gov. Corbett don't have the backbone to stand up to the gas companies and implement a severance tax like every other gas producing state has in place, Pennsylvania residents should get something in return.  And that something could be the most stringent enforcement of environmental regulations in the U.S.

Tanker full of drilling wastewater (frack water) that ran off the road in West Virginia.
(photo credit: West Virginia Sierra Club)
There is no minimum number of violations that are acceptable.  This is not a basketball game where you're allowed five fouls.  But maybe it should be.  But maybe gas companies with more than five violations should lose their right to continue to produce a gas well.  As soon as one gas company fouls out and gets sent back to Texas, maybe the remaining gas companies would take notice and be more careful.

Drilling issues are not limited to Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  The drill rig shown in this photo is near the town of Pinedale, WY. I once camped on U.S. Forest Service land next to Fremont Lake outside of Pinedale for a week. One or two of those nights I slept out under the stars with no sounds other than the crickets and no lights other than the moon and stars.  These drill rigs run loudly 24/7 and use flood lights at night. So even if no regulatory violations occur, there is still a loss of tranquility for anyone within earshot of drilling operations. (photo credit: Abrahm Lustgarten on http://www.propublica.orgpinedale)

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