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Summer Summary of the Trail Logbook Project

As summer transitioned into fall, and as winter knocks on our doorsteps in PA, I would like to take some time to summarize the preliminary feedback coming in through our pilot Trail Logbook Project. The project, for those of you who aren’t familiar, is a collaboration between Keystone Trails Association (KTA) and FracTracker Alliance. With the expansion of unconventional natural gas extraction into our state forests, we wanted to understand the experiences of people who are using those areas for recreation – and to document the change in those experiences as drilling continues. Most of the results of the project so far indicate that drilling is having a small, but notable effect on the traditionally tranquil experiences of hikers, bikers, and the like across the Commonwealth. The most common complaints are those of noise and degradation of scenery (see complete list ofLogbook reports below, or trail alerts on KTA’s website). Some people who entered information into the Logbook have noted that gas-drilling opponents have actually contributed to the degradation of the local scenery with graffiti and protest signs.

Given the number of hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts that frequent the Commonwealth every year, we need more people to report back to us in order to make a comprehensive and accurate statement about the overall impacts that drilling may be having on some of PA’s most beautiful natural resources. Perhaps there are no more issues to report, or perhaps people just don’t know who to tell. Regardless, we hope to expand our efforts to promote the project, which includes working with trail organizations in other states where shale gas activities may conflict with trail use.

On a side note, the lack of awareness about the Logbook and the state of drilling in popular recreation areas are key reasons why we are hosting a series of media tours this fall. The first was held on October 25th in Loyalsock State Forest due to the conerns of environmental concervation groups and residents about the communication barriers in existence between DCNR, the natural gas industry, and the public. If you are interested in participating in one of the next two tours, learn more here.

The full list of Logbook complaints to-date and the main areas impacted by unconventional natural gas extraction activity according to those reports are listed below:

Complaints from Logbook

Visual Degradation of Scenery

  • Anti-gas drilling graffiti
  • Flagging tape indicating seismic testing or road widening littered the area, called into question the “leave no trace” character of the trail
  • Intense construction activity and clearings for pipelines

Noise Pollution

  • Constant noise from compressor station
  • Helicopters
  • Construction and well pad noise

Safety

  • Seismic Testing: One hiker found 2 red wires with labels “Danger Explosives” portruding up from the ground
  • Seismic Testing: Equipment left right on the trail

Convenience

  • Trail relocation (4 miles)
  • Flagging tape caused confusion regarding the direction of trail

Main Areas Impacted

Life and Times of Loyalsock

By Brook Lenker, Executive Director, and Samantha Malone, Manager of Science and Communications

It’s so quiet you can hear moss squish underfoot and the tapping of a woodpecker a quarter-mile distant. These are the sounds of a lesser-known Pennsylvania Wilds, the lush woodlands and rock-studded beauty of the  Loyalsock State Forest.  Picture a pristine landscape of ferny grottos, expansive bogs, and blueberries ripe for the picking.   The squeaky-clean air seems hyper-enriched, a photosynthetic side-effect of stands thick with maple, birch, hemlock, and pine. Currents of endless streams race impatiently. Rattlesnakes shy but leery, lie and rest.

Across Lycoming and Sullivan counties, the shale gas industry is leaving its industrial footprint, from the iconic Pine Creek Valley through Tiagdaghton State Forest to the Loyalsock and environs.  Yet while Williamsport booms from the infusion of gas, many of the hidden, ecologically-rich spaces of the Loyalsock – from Rock Run to Devil’s Elbow – still whisper.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), of the 2.2 million acres in the state forest system, 675,000 acres are available for gas development. This includes 385,400 acres under Commonwealth-issued leases and 290,000 acres of where the agency doesn’t own the oil and gas rights. The latter scenario applies to 25,621 acres of the Loyalsock’s 114,494 acres where “severed” rights are owned by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and International Development Corporation.

Circa July 2012, there is ample evidence of the changes on the horizon. The oranges and yellows of seismic testing equipment (photo left) adorn the sleepy forest roads and the electric pink of ribbon markers decorates the trees and ground. The few leased cabins look lost and lonely, but soon they could have the steady companionship of hundreds of trucks rumbling past their doors carrying water, sand, and some not-so-benign chemicals and waste fluids. The narrow, dirt roads – bound to require widening and repair – are probably inadequate for such intensive use and potentially treacherous for heavy rigs, occasionally known to roll down steep embankments and spill their secrets.  Heavy traffic and structurally-degraded roads can cause significant sediment pollution as suggested by the studies of the Penn State Center for Dirt and Gravel Roads. Sediment is the enemy of native brook trout, our handsome state fish, who adamantly require cool, clear water to survive. Currently, there’s an abundance of such good water within Loyalsock.

But traffic and roadway impacts are but one piece of the shale gas puzzle. Could well casings fail and methane bubble into surface waters (recent accidents in Bradford County and Tioga County are suspected of causing just such problems)? How much will air quality be degraded by diesel emissions from trucks, pumps, generators, drill rigs, and other equipment? How will floodlights and flaring affect star-packed skies or the incessant drone of compressor stations antagonize solitude? While off the beaten path, the forest sees its share of visitors, and recreational trails are a signature of the region. The 27-mile Old Logger’s Path (photo below) is a backpacker’s dream crisscrossing a world of palpable wonders and subterranean severed rights.

Hiking, a popular recreation, and the forest’s quality scenery are big components of tourism, consistently one of Pennsylvania’s leading industries. According to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office, visitor spending across the Commonwealth totaled $34.2 billion in 2010. Comparatively, Penn State research (p.31) indicated that, “…the Marcellus gas industry increased Pennsylvania’s value added by $11.2 billon” for 2010. In the northeastern Pennsylvania, drilling is slowing due in part to the low price of natural gas. The ramifications for the Loyalsock are uncertain but the lasting attraction of idyllic open spaces is unequivocal.

Nevertheless, Anadarko and its partner seek the gas near the Old Loggers Path and vulnerable populations of forest interior birds. Such species require large unbroken tracts of contiguous forest. A recent study in Environmental Management authored by P.J. Drohan, Margaret Brittingham, and others reports that 26% of well pads in the Susquehanna basin are located in core forests (many on DCNR lands). The study quotes a DCNR paper: “further (shale gas) development on state forests is likely to alter the ecological integrity and wild character of state forests.” The authors believe other research supports that assertion.

The Loyalsock is a microcosm of the state forest-shale gas paradigm.  As of a March 2012 DCNR presentation, 814 Marcellus well locations had been approved by the Bureau of Forestry on state forest land and 447 Marcellus wells had been drilled in the state forests including more than 80 well pads. The agency estimates a total of 3810 new Marcellus wells by 2018. With an average well pad size of about five acres, many miles of new and widened roads, even more miles of pipelines, plus intermittent water impoundments and compressor stations, it’s easy to wonder what our state forests will soon look like. And what about the legacy of silviculture cultivated by Pinchot, Rothrock, and other conservation pioneers?  The Pennsylvania state forest system is certified by the Rainforest Alliance under Forest Stewardship Council standards ensuring that the products coming from these forests are managed in an environmentally-responsible manner. At what threshold of shale gas activity will this certification – which adds significant value to finished wood products – be jeopardized?

Since it is likely that Anadarko and its partner will pursue their claims, the fate of the severed parts of the Loyalsock may be shaped by the existence or lack-thereof of a surface use agreement between Anadarko and DCNR. Where DCNR has leased and controls oil and gas rights, a surface use agreement is entered into that steers the development activity in a more sustainable manner and away from especially sensitive forest features. In the case of severed rights, there is uncertainty about the applicability of surface use agreements. However, with little else to ameliorate the collateral damage of gas development in undeveloped surroundings, prudence would suggest it’s a tool worth using.

The stakes are high. DCNR’s own list of “challenges” posed by shale gas for state forest lands include: surface disturbance, forest fragmentation, habitat loss and species impacts, invasive plants, loss of wild character, recreation conflicts, water use and disposal. With the mission of the Bureau of Forestry to “ensure the long-term health, viability and productivity of the Commonwealth’s forests and to conserve native wild plants,” they have their work cut out for them, especially as more drilling tracts are developed.

In the months to come, the industry will be watched, technologies will change, activists will speak, parties will talk; meanwhile, the big, old rattlers, wise but weary, grow restless.

Request for Papers:  Special Issue of the ASCE Journal of Environmental Engineering

Topic: Environmental Aspects of Shale Gas Development

Submission Deadline:  September 30, 2012

Guest Editors:
Jeanne VanBriesen, Carnegie Mellon University
Michel Boufadel, Temple University

Unconventional gas in tight shales like the Barnett, the Marcellus, and the Eagle Ford formations is changing the view of domestic natural gas supply. Directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing has opened up new resources, but also opens new debates on the impacts of extraction technologies on water and air resources. Environmental engineers are leading technology developments in green completions, as well as investigating the effects of drilling on water and air quality.

ASCE is pleased to announce a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Engineering broadly encompassing the following aspects: Water resources and allocation, migration of fluids (liquids and gases) in aquifers and waterways, produced water treatment, and air quality.

Prospective authors are requested to prepare manuscripts according to the guidelines published at Journal of Environmental Engineering. Submission of a manuscript for the special issue does not guarantee publication. Manuscripts will be subject to the same peer-review process for all manuscripts published in the Journal of Environmental Engineering. Submit articles to editorial manager.

A detailed timeline for publication of the special issue is given below:

Schedule

Submission deadline: September 30, 2012
First round of reviews: December 30, 2012
Final decision: February 28, 2013
Accepted manuscripts due: March 30, 2013
Publication: Late 2013/Early 2014

Prospective authors for the special issue should address cover letters to Special Issues Editor Dionysios (Dion) D. Dionysiou. If you have questions regarding this special issue, please contact Jeanne VanBriesen or Michel Boufadel.

Word bubble using news headlines from Jackson study release

Duke Study Prompts Confusing Headlines

If you are like me and start your morning work routine by scrolling through the daily Marcellus Shale news with a good cup of coffee, then you are probably just as confused as the rest of us about the recent Duke University study results regarding shale gas drilling. Just take a look at the list below and try to interpret strictly from the news headlines what it is Nathaniel Warner, Dr. Robert Jackson, and colleagues actually found:

  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (CNBC.com)
  • Marcellus Shale Study Shows Fluids Likely Seeping Into Pennsylvania Drinking Water (Huffington Post)
  • Rising Shale Water Complicates Fracking Debate (NPR)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Oil and Gas Online)
  • Duke study finds possible pathways from Marcellus shale to drinking water … (Akron Beacon Journal)
  • Fracking Did Not Sully Aquifers, Limited Study Finds (New York Times -blog)
  • Water contamination from shale fracking may follow natural routes (Examiner.com)
  • Duke study: Fluids likely seeping into PA’s drinking water from Marcellus Shale (News & Observer)
  • Findings are mixed in fracking-water study (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • New study: Fluids from Marcellus Shale likely seeping into PA drinking water (Syracuse.com)
  • New research shows no Marcellus Shale pollution (The Wall Street Journal)
  • Marcellus Brine Migration Likely Natural, Not Man-Made (Duke University)
Word bubble created using Tagxedo showing news headlines from Jackson study release

No wonder this entire issue is so contentious. Not only is the science still evolving, but then you have to waft through the countless takes on what the research means. Perhaps we should take a cue from our childhood years and get the story “straight from the horse’s mouth.” E.g. try reading the official results (PDF) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Even the abstract below will tell you a lot more about the implications of the results than any truncated news headline could:

The debate surrounding the safety of shale gas development in the Appalachian Basin has generated increased awareness of drinking water quality in rural communities. Concerns include the potential for migration of stray gas, metal-rich formation brines, and hydraulic fracturing and/or flowback fluids to drinking water aquifers. A critical question common to these environmental risks is the hydraulic connectivity between the shale gas formations and the overlying shallow drinking water aquifers. We present geochemical evidence from northeastern Pennsylvania showing that pathways, unrelated to recent drilling activities, exist in some locations between deep underlying formations and shallow drinking water aquifers. Integration of chemical data (Br, Cl, Na, Ba, Sr, and Li) and isotopic ratios (87Sr∕86Sr, 2H∕H, 18O∕16O, and 228Ra∕226Ra) from this and previous studies in 426 shallow groundwater samples and 83 northern Appalachian brine samples suggest that mixing relationships between shallow ground water and a deep formation brine causes groundwater salinization in some locations. The strong geochemical fingerprint in the salinized (Cl > 20 mg∕L) groundwater sampled from the Alluvium, Catskill, and Lock Haven aquifers suggests possible migration of Marcellus brine through naturally occurring pathways. The occurrences of saline water do not correlate with the location of shale-gas wells and are consistent with reported data before rapid shale-gas development in the region; however, the presence of these fluids suggests conductive pathways and specific geostructural and/or hydrodynamic regimes in northeastern Pennsylvania that are at increased risk for contamination of shallow drinking water resources, particularly by fugitive gases, because of natural hydraulic connections to deeper formations.

In all fairness, this study is very technical, so writing a catching but accurate news headline is extremely difficult. It is important to keep in mind, however, that summaries written for the lay public will often contain a piece of the translator’s perspective – like snippets of foreign code embedded in the story.


By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, FracTracker; DrPH Student, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health department

HB 1950 votes and numbers of wells

Covert Affairs in the Commonwealth

trans·par·ent  [trans-pair-uhnt, -par-]

adjective

    1. admitting the passage of light through interstices.
    2. easily seen through, recognized, or detected: transparent excuses.

antonyms:  opaque  |  secretive  |  HB 1950

While House Bill 1950 is not actually listed as an antonym to “transparent” in the dictionary, its passing certainly acted that way. On February 8, 2012, PA’s HB 1950 was quickly bullied through the Senate and House with very little public transparency on what it contained. The lack of transparency during the move to pass the bill is similar to that of a drilled wells map for PA (yes, that’s a corny GIS joke). It now awaits the signature of Gov. Corbett – who has thanked the General Assembly for passing it. While HB 1950 institutes a sort-of impact tax that counties can decide whether or not to implement, the fee is the lowest in the country and is dependent partly on the [low] commercial price of gas. The bill also reduces the ability of local municipalities from individually zoning drilling (including pipelines). Tack onto all of that the fact that the data on these wells is just not up to speed with the pace of drilling. In one of Matt’s recent post about how many permits there are in PA right now, he notes that not even the PA DEP numbers can give you a straight answer. These numerical discrepancies make you wonder how thoroughly any permitting site assessments can be conducted when not all of the well locations can be accounted for. That issue makes the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center’s recent report looking at drilling data even more frightening. Their analysis revealed that the gas drilling industry was responsible for 3,355 Marcellus Violations  between 2008 and 2011, many of which were not simply paperwork violations. At least the money set aside in the proposed state budget for improving emergency response on drills sites will be well worth it.

Ah yes, the proposed state budget… This intriguing reading was introduced by the Governor on the 8th, as well. According to John Quigley there is much to love and even more to hate in the 2012-13 budget proposal. To start off, this version of the budget WOULD NOT reopen the state forests to more leasing, something that many environmental groups were concerned could happen to help alleviate the state’s budget deficit. However, the Keystone Fund monies ($46 million) WOULD be reallocated into the general fund. This would be a major setback to conservation work because normally the money would be granted out to land trusts and conservation groups. That means less conservation work all around – at a time when it’s is needed more than ever.

There is much more to all of these issues, but instead of reinventing the wheel, here is a nice summary about the lack of transparency related to HB 1950. If you are interested in seeing how your representative voted on HB 1950, click on these links: PA House Roll Call Votes | PA Senate Roll Call Votes or check out the map below showing two layers of data on the:

  1. Number of wells per PA Senate district on a light to dark purple spectrum (darker indicates more wells)
  2. Vote on HB 1950, with green hatching indicating “yes” votes and red hatching indicating “no” votes.
To get the most out of this map: zoom in to your area of interest, click on the identify “i” button, and then click on a place on the map that you would like to learn more about.

 

A World Without Research

When times are economically demanding, the first tendency of regulators is to suggest cutting non-essential programs. Unfortunately, many of those ‘non-essentials’ include public services and research, which are pivotal to the progress of our nation. Mostly as a mental exercise, I’d like everyone to ask themselves where we would we be if we did not fund such research:

  • You would not be reading this article on the internet, as it was pioneered by those that developed the Large Hadron Collider.
  • The paths of hurricanes and tornadoes would be terribly difficult to predict.
  • One out of every ~nine babies worldwide would be claimed by smallpox.
  • Medical MRI technology would not exist – pioneered by a chemist and a physicist.

DCNR Changes

DCNR Lands & Active Permits

Located more close to home are Pennsylvania’s recent funding cuts on ecological projects. Those in power have claimed that their regulatory decisions regarding unconventional natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale layer are based on science. However, the funding for the Commonwealth’s Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) to provide data on the health of PA’s ecosystem is aggressively being cut by those same individuals. On January 18, 2012, NPR reported that documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania (among others) suggest that the funding for scientific endeavors within DCNR currently focusing on drilling-related issues is actively being slashed by the state. The agency’s wildlife research program has been cut by almost 70%, specifically impacting the projects dealing with understanding the impacts of drilling. The rationale for why some projects were cut and not others has not been provided, nor was the reason for failing to involve the conservation team in such funding decisions. Also recently, the director of DCNR’s citizens advisory committee was fired by the Corbett administration. The committee has oversight of the state’s parks and forests. These significant changes could significantly affect the accountability of Marcellus Shale gas drilling in PA’s forests.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a major budget deficit to deal with, no doubt. However, in the face of financial crises compounded by overlapping priorities on a policy level, it is even more crucial that we use real evidence – science – to create policies and make decisions. How can we do that when we are cutting the very channels that provide us with the data? Without access to reliable data and information about how PA’s ecosystem is dealing with drilling, our policy-makers will find it more difficult to make well-informed decisions. Without programs that provide up-to-date and reliable impact data, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead to today’s legacy pollution sites – for which tax-payers are now encumbered to remediate!

Read more about the DCNR cuts in NPR’s full article.

Cuts as Pace of Drilling Intensifies

Inadequate access to quality data is an issue that is only going to become more concerning as the pace of the shale gas industry intensifies. (There were 785 Marcellus wells drilled in 2009; 1,461 in 2010; and 1,920 in 2011.) Forty percent of PA’s state forests are already leased out for shale gas drilling, and there has also been some discussion about the likelihood of lifting the moratorium (ban) on further drilling. Learn more here.

As another point of reference regarding the scale of shale gas drilling in PA, below is a map of all of the Marcellus Shale wells drilled in the state as of 1-12-12 created with data from the PA DEP using Data.FracTracker.org


Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH is a doctorate student in the Environmental and Occupational Health department of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and the Communications Specialist for FracTracker.org. She can be reached at: malone@fractracker.org  |  412-648-8641

A legal plan to control drilling

by David Slottje, JD and Helen Holden Slottje, JD – Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc.
What comes to mind when you think about upstate New York? Rolling farmlands, fresh air, and the chirping of birds? Or heavy truck traffic at all hours of the day and night, the smell of chemicals in the air, distant views pockmarked with drilling rigs, and the stars blocked from sight by light pollution?

Many community groups and municipal leaders are becoming increasingly alarmed by the threats attendant to unconventional gas drilling. These communities are growing frustrated with what they perceive to be the unwillingness of state and federal politicians and agencies to act decisively. Can anything be done at the local level to protect the health and welfare of our communities? The answer is yes, at least in New York.

We are lawyers with the Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc., a pro bono, public interest environmental law firm based in Ithaca. It is our opinion that a New York municipality has the legal authority and right to use land-use laws of general applicability (such as zoning laws) to prohibit what we have termed “high-impact industrial uses,” either in certain zoning districts or throughout an entire town.

Furthermore, we believe this authority and power legally may be exercised in a manner that, depending upon the municipality’s particular definition of “high-impact industrial uses,” will have the incidental effect of prohibiting (within the town) land uses such as unconventional gas drilling.

Some people have heard that municipalities are legally restricted from enacting laws to prohibit certain uses, such as “adult entertainment,” and so they wonder whether those same restrictions might also apply to banning industrial uses. They do not.

Those restrictions on “adult entertainment” are very limited and very specific in nature, and have to do with protection of constitutional rights, specifically First Amendment rights, including free speech.

There is no question that exclusion of industrial uses is a proper and legitimate use of land-use laws.

The United States Supreme Court addressed this question in a 1974 case known as Village of Belle Terre. In Belle Terre, the court stated that the town had wide latitude to use its zoning laws to protect the public welfare, and that the public welfare is spiritual, as well as physical, aesthetic and monetary. The court specifically held that a town may use its police power “to lay out zones where the blessings of quiet seclusion and clean air make the area a sanctuary for people.”

And the New York Court of Appeals — the highest court of New York State — came to the same conclusion in a 1996 case called Gernatt Asphalt Products. This was a situation in which a town had used its zoning power to ban mining as a permitted use, and the people who wanted to mine challenged the ban, saying that the ban involved unconstitutional exclusionary zoning.

We have never held that the exclusionary zoning test, which is intended to prevent a municipality from improperly using the zoning power to keep people out, also applies to prevent the exclusion of industrial uses. […] A municipality is not obligated to permit the exploitation of any and all natural resources within the town as a permitted use, if limiting that use is a reasonable exercise of its police power to prevent damage to the rights of others and to promote the interests of the community as a whole. (Emphasis added.)

So, there should be no doubt that a New York State municipality has the legal right to use land-use laws to ban industrial uses.

You may have heard the opinion that New York has preempted the right of municipalities to ban certain specifically articulated industrial uses — oil and gas drilling and solution mining — within their boundaries.

We believe that the state has not preempted such activities, so long as they happen to fall within the definition of “high-impact industrial uses” contained in a town’s properly enacted zoning law.

There is a state statute (the “drilling statute”) that precludes municipalities from regulating the oil, gas, and solution mining industries, but we believe “regulating” means regulating the operational processes of the industry—that is, things such as how deep they can drill or mine, and imposition of bonding requirements. Municipalities may, in fact, prohibit such industries outright, either in certain zoning districts or throughout an entire town.

The drilling statute language regarding regulation is almost identical to the language regarding regulation that was previously used in the context of the mineral mining statute, and in that context the Court of Appeals made it crystal clear that the scope of preempted regulation meant regulation related to operational processes, and that municipalities absolutely could prohibit mining outright, whether in certain zoning districts or throughout an entire town.

Simply put, our recommendation to New York State municipalities seeking to preserve their character and avoid industrialization is to adopt a zoning law or amendment that specifically prohibits high-impact industrial uses within the municipality, and to utilize a definition of “high-impact industrial use” which encompasses unconventional gas drilling and any other uses determined to be inimical to the municipality’s desired character and goals.

We do not believe that our interpretation is particularly bold, or visionary, or out-of-the box. Embracing our approach does not involve attempting to create new law, or attempting to overturn any law, or even trying to distinguish a holding in an unfavorable judicial decision.

There are people out there who do not agree with our approach. Our view is that the vast majority of them are people who have a financial stake in seeing drilling go forward: drilling companies and their lawyers, landowners who favor drilling, and their lawyers—many of whom will receive substantial fees if drilling is allowed to proceed.

We would be happy to speak with the representatives of any municipality, or any community group, who wish to discuss the concepts we are recommending, the specifics of creating the type of law we are suggesting, or how to minimize political and legal “push-back” risks. We are pro bono attorneys, which means we do not charge for our time.


David Slottje is executive director and senior attorney, and Helen Holden Slottje is managing attorney, at the Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc. (CEDC). Both are members of the Club’s Atlantic Chapter. CEDC is a 501(c)(3) non-profit, pro bono, public interest environmental law firm. For more information about CEDC or to contact the authors, visit CEDC’s web site.

Copyright SierraClub 2009

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