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Energy and the Environment: Preventing and Resolving Conflicts

Citizen David Tames Gas Goliaths on the Marcellus Shale Stage: Citizen Action as a Form of Dispute Prevention in the Internet Age

A NY colleague of ours recently published an article on the issue of natural gas drilling and public engagement in New York State. The potential for environmental and public health issues were discussed in great detail for those who are interested in becoming more versed on the topic. (FracTracker was mentioned as a tool for dispute prevention, so that is exciting for us, too!)

Article Excerpt

“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” This could soon become the lament of millions of people who derive their drinking water from sources located near the latest natural gas boom site in the East, known as the “Marcellus Shale” region. Drilling is underway in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but not yet in New York. The focus here is New York.

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing holds promise for accessing shale gas. But with the current state of the industry practices, it also promises certain devastation to the environment and human health unless all local, state, and federal government officials immediately begin to take seriously the already documented risks associated with this unconventional drilling method. Every citizen has an interest in protecting our natural resources, water included. In this real life drama, David is played by U.S. citizens and Goliath is played by the rich and powerful oil and gas industry. Members of the oil and gas industry and land-owning citizens seeking to lease their property for gas extraction prefer the circumscribed definition of the term hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which refers only to the actual gas drilling. Environmental groups and individuals advocating for conservation of natural resources opt for a broad interpretation of the term, reasoning that every step in the hydraulic gas drilling process is worthy of attention since adverse impacts can and do result from steps before and after the actual drilling occurs. The future environmental and human …

Published in the Spring, 2011 edition of Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. 373. by Elisabeth N. Radow

If you have a LexisNexis account, you can view the entire article online.

Does Thickness of Shale Predict Production?

I was recently contacted by a resident of New York State who was concerned about Marcellus Shale gas drilling moving into his area. He found a report by geologists Dr. Gary Lash from SUNY – Fredoinia and Dr. Terry Engelder from Penn State that showed the shale layer thinning substantially as it heads north across the Pennsylvania-New York border.

What’s more, this report breaks up the Marcellus Shale into several substrata, including the Union Springs shale and the Oatka Creek shale, which are separated by a thin and intermittent layer of limestone.

On a cursory level, the thickest parts of the Union Springs substratum of the Marcellus Shale seemed to correspond with the highest production areas in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties. Even though there was another high production area in Southwestern Pennsylvania in a relatively thin portion of the Union Springs (and Marcellus Shale in general), it seemed like a reasonable hypothesis to explore. Does the thickness of the shale layer effectively predict the production values from wells in those areas?

Thicness of the Union Springs Substratum and MS Production in PA (large)
Thickness of the Union Springs substratum of the Marcellus Shale and daily production values. As the shale layer gets thicker, it is represented by darker brown bands, while production values range from blue (lowest production) to red (highest production). For more information and a dynamic view, click the image to visit our DataTool.

Karen Edelstein, FracTracker’s New York Liason, digitized the Union Springs thickness map from the Lash-Engelder report, and then I was able to correlate the production values of all Marcellus Shale wells to the average thickness of each category. For the purpose of this exercise, only wells reporting positive (non-zero) production values between July and December 2011 were included. To account for wells in production for only part of that period, I calculated the average daily production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf) per day.


Thickness of the Union Springs substratum of the Marcellus Shale in feet versus average daily production in thousands of cubic feet (Mcf) per day.

Overall, the correlation isn’t very strong. While the trend line does show moderate increases in production as the Union Springs shale layer thickens, the low R-squared shows that there is a good bit of randomness involved. Part of this was expected, due to the large number of productive wells in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where the formation is quite thin. This would be the notable bump in the plot chart above between 20 and 60 feet of thickness.

Thickness of the Union Springs and MS Production in SW PA (large)
Thickness of the Union Springs substratum of the Marcellus Shale and average daily production values. Click the image for more information and a dynamic view.

However, there is another factor that contributes to the poor correlation. As I mentioned above, the trendline does indicate that on average, wells in the thicker formations produce more gas than those in thinner formations, but there are also a large number of duds from the most robust parts of the Union Springs. That is to say, there are a lot of blue dots in the dark brown regions of the map below.

Thickness of Union Springs Substratum and MS Production in NE PA (large)

It is likely that if the whole thickness of the Marcellus Shale were considered, the results would have been even worse. In fact, some of the thickest parts of the whole Marcellus, at least according to Lash and Engelder, are in Pike County, which drillers have left alone so far.

So we have not cracked the nut of predicting which areas will yield the highest production returns, but at least we have good company in that regard. Despite the huge amount of data that the oil and gas companies possess, the results that they report to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection show that they still don’t really know what they’ll find at the bottom of a hole until they drill it.

Although there is clearly more to gas yields than thickness of the shale, it was an interesting exercise, and if the industry ever does figure it out, it will be a multi-billion dollar discovery–keep in mind that each of the thousands of wells planned cost at least $5 million to drill. Here’s hoping that they do figure it out someday, and not just because of the economics. If drilling wildcat wells can be minimized, then many of the significant adverse effects of the industry would also be mitigated as well, at least in areas where production values were estimated to be low.

Problems with Abandoned and Orphaned Wells

Left: Cabin Run orphaned oil well, Morgan County, Ohio. Many of the older oil and gas wells were either perfunctorily plugged, or else not at all. Right: The Pennsylvania DEP thinks this Bradford Township explosion in McKean County, PA might have been due to a nearby abandoned gas well that was drilled in 1881.

In April of 2000, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released a plan for dealing with the approximately 8,000 abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells throughout the Commonwealth. This report singled out 550 wells that were especially problematic, and of those, 129 were flagged as the highest priority, with a point score of 30 or greater on their internal scale.

Eleven years later, there are over 8,500 abandoned and orphaned wells, and 186 with a point score of 30 or greater. Most likely, this increase doesn’t suggest newly abandoned wells so much as the discovery of additional old ones. After all, according to Independant Petroleum Association of America estimates, over 325,000 oil and gas wells were drilled statewide between 1859 and 2000. The DEP has no information on more than half of those wells–about 184,000.  Therefore, the actual number of abandoned and orphaned wells in Pennsylvania could be much higher than the estimates provided above.

Abandoned wells are those that have been out of production for a year or more, and orphaned wells are wells that were abandoned prior to 1985, and from which the current landholder or operator didn’t receive any economic benefits.  When wells are designated as orphaned, the DEP is responsible for plugging them.  As of February, there are 6,251 wells classified as orphaned and 2,272 abandoned wells.

Reasons for Concern

Obviously, the prospects of houses suddenly exploding, as in the picture above, is reason enough to be concerned, and yet there are a variety of ways in which abandoned oil and gas wells can impact Pennsylvania’s environment and the health and well being of our residents. Most unplugged wells release some amount of oil, gas, condensate, or brine, which can kill vegetation, damage fragile riparian ecosystems, and contaminate aquifers. There is also the possibility of injury due to the sudden release of pressure. Some abandoned wells are 30 inch diameter open holes that are obviously a danger for children to fall into.

May 30, 2011 sinkhole in Allentown, PA
There is also the possibility that the presence of wells, whether active or or not, will aggravate unstable geologic formations, which are fairly common in Pennsylvania, due to mining activities in the west and soluble limestone formations in the east. This recent Allentown sinkhole was reportedly caused by a water leak, and caused significant property damage.

To give an example of the potential impact of abandoned oil and gas wells, here are some of the comments from the Abandoned and Orphaned Wells Program, with corresponding point scores:


Comments on abandoned wells and their corresponding point scores.

It is not always clear why a well was given a particular priority rating.  Indeed, there are many instances where ratings are zero, but the comments give reason for concern, such as “Oil in water supply” and “Well intact, near implement dealer facility, is a fire hazard.” Additionally, less than 15 percent of the abandoned wells listed give any comment at all.

Incidents in McKean County


Recent explosion incidents in McKean County, PA. Please click on the gray compass rose and double chevron to hide those menus.

The Bradford Township fire mentioned above (the more southern of the two), is about half a mile from the nearest abandoned well on the list.  However, the suspected well, Rogers 9, was apparently only 300 feet away. Presumably, this well was not known about until the incident occurred.  Rogers 9 was drilled in 1881.

The other incident, in Foster Township, is at the northern edge of a tight cluster of recent drilling activity.  It is entirely possible that there are abandoned wells in that region too, but again, nothing is on our list in the immediate vicinity.

This information leads one to suspect that one of the fires was probably due to recent activity, while the other was caused by a long-forgotten well. Whether or not that was the case, it is clear that drilling holes in the earth near where people live can have an adverse effect for a very long time.

Well Plugging

While well plugging technology has obviously improved over the years, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is always done right. A single $25,000 bond currently is the only insurance that an operator will plug all of their wells statewide, once they are no longer in production. In most cases, that is probably adequate, since there are non-monetary incentives for the operator to stay in good graces with the DEP. However, there are numerous smaller operators with wells still in production, including some residents who have their own private wells.

In these cases, the carrot of getting the bond money returned may not match the cost of plugging the well properly, especially if multiple wells are involved. In this 1998 document, the DEP put the average cost of plugging a well between $6,000 and $22,000. Last year, the DEP plugged 11 wells in Erie County for a cost of $137,348, or a cost of about $12,500 each.

According to the Bradford Era, over 2,700 wells have already been plugged statewide under the program. In McKean County, more than 950 wells have been plugged since 1989, at a cost of over $6.5 million.

As mentioned above, the DEP assumes responsibility for plugging the orphaned wells. The money for this comes from $150 fees added to oil permit applications, and $250 fees for gas permits. Money is clearly a limiting factor in how many wells the DEP can to plug. Those 11 Erie County wells required funds from 550 new gas permits. If those wells represent the average current price for plugging a well, then the 6,251 orphaned wells still on the list would cost over $78 million to plug, requiring the permit fees from 312,550 new wells. And that is still not including the approximately 184,000 abandoned wells that the DEP doesn’t even know about.

Maybe it is time for a new strategy.

Air emissions from drilling rig

The Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction

Archived

This article has been archived and is provided for reference purposes only.

By John Stolz, PhD – Duquesne University, Department of Biological Sciences

The Marcellus Shale represents one of the largest reservoirs of unconventional natural gas in the world.It holds the potential, like other gas and oil reserves, to provide a source of energy and jobs for Maryland. It’s extraction, however, is non-trivial and if done without proper safeguards can result in the degradation of water and air quality, and loss of land use. Over the past year I have had to opportunity to observe ongoing natural gas well activities in Western Pennsylvania, attended public hearings,spoken with disaffected individuals, gas company representatives, and people from other states with gas drilling activities. I would like to share with you some of my observations.Shale gas is called “unconventional” because the gas is trapped in the rock and needs to be extracted.The process, called hydraulic fracturing, involves a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals that are injected into the group at very high pressures (~10,000 psi). Each “frac” may require up to 5 million gallons of water. In Pennsylvania, this water is withdrawn from lakes, streams and rivers.

The large volumes of water are transported to a developing “play” by water trucks and deposited in large impoundments. These impoundments can be several acres in size and hold millions of gallons of water. A typical water truck may hold 4,500 gallons, so it takes several hundreds to thousands of truck trips to fill an impoundment.

The depth of the Marcellus Shale is between 5,000 and 6,000 feet below the surface in Western PA,thus a larger drilling rig is needed. A unique feature of these wells is that they are “horizontal” and may extend outwards several thousand feet in several directions. This is needed as the formation is relatively thin (~150’) in most places. A well pad may have 6 to 12 well heads. Each well produces~1,000 tons of drilling waste (ground up rock and drilling mud) that may contain a variety of salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). This drilling waste may be buried on site or, more usually, transported to a land fill.

The well pad itself is 4-6 acres, in order to provide space for the trucks and containers, and impoundments for drilling mud, waste, and fracking. Once the horizontal has been drilled and cased, it is “fracked”. This process involves many vehicles, containers of sand and chemicals, the mixing trucks with fracking chemicals, and the diesel compressors (~200 vehicles). Hence the need for more space than a conventional well. During completion, the well is usually flared.

A completed well pad will typically have several well heads (the “Christmas tree), separators, small compressors, and condensate tanks (to handle the produced water). As long as a well pad is active (the well can be restimulated or used to drill a deeper formation), the footprint is still 4-6 acres. Depending on the number of wells, there may be as few as two condensate tanks or many more. They are sources of volatile organics as they are designed with “blow off” relief valves. Invisible to the naked eye these volatiles can be seen with specially designed infrared cameras.

The amount of produced water may also vary. For Marcellus, the initial flow back has been only about10 to 20% of the amount of fluids that were injected. Over time this “produced water” increases in total dissolved solid (TDS) content. The “brine” can be ten times saltier than seawater, contain high concentrations of bromide, chloride, strontium, and barium, as well as arsenic and uranium. In Pennsylvania, while the condensate tanks have hazard placards indicating the toxicity and flammability of the flow back water, the truck only is labeled “residual waste” and “brine”. Publicly owned wastewater treatment plants (POTWs) are allowed to take up to 1% of their total daily output. In Pennsylvania, there are currently at least 63 POTW’s permitted to take produced water. POTWs are not designed to“treat” produced water but merely dilute the salts.

This has resulted in increases in total dissolved solids(TDS), bromide in particular, in local rivers. The increase in TDS and bromide has caused problems with public drinking water facilities as the disinfectant process (chlorination) creates trihalomethanes (TMH, bromoform and chloroform). As a result many public drinking water facilities in the area have had to convert from chlorination to chloramination to reduce the formation of THMs. However, chloraminated water can cause the leaching of lead from older pipes and fittings. And there will be spills. Over the past 2.5 years, the PA-DEP has cited the industry with over 1,600 violations. Many of these were for improperly constructed impoundments, chemical spills, and surface contamination.

There are other aspects to the industry as well. Methane is a colorless, odorless gas, that needs to be odorized with mercaptan. The product from the Marcellus in Western PA is not dry gas but a combination of other organics as well. Thus the gas needs to be “dried” in refineries. Propane and butane are “cryo” separated in these facilities. These complexes are a source of volatile organic compounds and are frequently flaring off residual organics. They are also flanked by compressor stations that pressurize the gas for the pipeline.

The industry can move very quickly as has been recently demonstrated in Hickory-Houston, PA area,where since 2005 there are now over 80 well pads, impoundments, compressor stations, and other gasfacilities within a five mile radius.

The extraction of unconventional natural gas is heavy industry involving large tracts of land, heavyequipment and vehicles, and an extensive array of pipelines, compressor stations, and processing facilities. The level of surface disturbance is extensive, as has been demonstrated elsewhere (e.g.,Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana). Existing industries such as agriculture, tourism, outdoor ventures (e.g., fishing, hunting, and camping), and wineries, will be lost or significantly impacted. In Pennsylvania there have already been loss and contamination of well water, and loss of livestock and quarantined herds after exposure to contaminated water.<

Summary of Environmental Impacts

Water

  • The amount needed for fracking (5 million gallons/frac)
  • Loss of well (aquifer) water through disruption or contamination
  • Gas migration causing methane contaminated water
  • The fate of the produced water (“treated” at POTWs)
  • Degradation of water quality in local streams and rivers
  • Degradation of drinking water quality (need to purchase bottled water)

Land usage

  • Large amount of acreage needed for well pads and impoundments
  • As long as a well can be “restimulated”, the well pad will remain active
  • Leased areas (former private and public lands) become restricted access
  • Public lands and parks no longer “public” as they are off limits due to safety

Exposure to toxic chemicals (spills, aquifer contamination)

  • Fracking fluids
  • Produced water contaminated with organics, salts, heavy metals, and NORMs
  • Failed or improper casings lead to aquifer contamination

Traffic and road degradation

  • Significant increase in trucks and vehicles cause road and bridge deterioration
  • Trucks may exceed weight and height limits

Noise

  • Heavy equipment, increased traffic,
  • Low frequency sounds during fracking
  • Compressors and compressor stations

Air pollution

  • Increased vehicle traffic
  • Well flaring
  • Release of VOC’s from well installations (condensate tanks are vented by design)
  • Compressor stations
  • Well blow outs

Property devaluation

  • Mortgages and home equity loans jeopardized by presence of wells
  • Mine subsidence insurance compromised or negated
  • Land owner ultimately responsible for taxes and environmental damage

EMS and emergency procedures

  • Evacuation plans must be in place for populated areas (a single well blow out can affect more than 1 mile radius)
  • EMS, police and fire must be trained to handle emergencies (well and impoundment fires, evacuations)

Increases taxes to cover infrastructure damage, additional public services and security.

John F. Stolz, Ph.D.
Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
Director, Center for Environmental Research and Education
Duquesne University
Pittsburgh, PA 15282