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Beyond Fracking: Experts Challenge Safety of Exploratory Wells, Vertical Drilling

Expert testimony for an administrative hearing disputes the safety of exploratory wells and vertical drilling.

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For more than two years, the natural gas drilling debate has focused primarily on the use of hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells. But expert testimony submitted for a government hearing next month challenges long-held assumptions about the safety of deep vertical drilling and exploratory wells, which operate in many states with limited regulatory oversight.

The administrative hearing will be held by the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal agency that regulates a variety of water and land activities in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and Delaware. At issue is the commission’s June 2010 determination that companies that drill exploratory wells—wells that are drilled to test theories about where gas might be found—must obtain the agency’s approval before drilling within its jurisdiction, and whether or not 11 exploratory wells in Pennsylvania that have already been approved should be exempt from the regulation.

The commission rarely holds hearings, and the progress of this one is being followed closely by industry and environmental advocates because of its implications for the drilling boom in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale rock formation, which underlies much of the basin.

The commission’s decision to regulate exploratory wells is being challenged by the Northern Wayne County Property Owner’s Alliance, with drilling companies Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co. joining as interested parties. Challenging the exemption of the 11 approved wells are two environmental organizations, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability Inc. and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, along with Nockamixon (Pa.) township, where one of the wells is located.

The Commission refused to supply any of the testimony that has been submitted for the hearing without a Freedom of Information Act Request. ProPublica filed that request, but in the meantime the environmental organizations provided the reports they submitted, as well as the reports the commission submitted on its own behalf.

None of the other parties involved in the hearing responded to requests to comment or to provide ProPublica their expert reports or other relevant documents.

The commission’s reports assert that:

  • Wells drilled 7,000 to 8,000 feet to reach the Marcellus formation create pathways through which naturally-occurring contaminants can potentially migrate into ground and surface water
  • Natural gas exploratory wells have the potential to harm endangered species in the river basin

The reports submitted by the two environmental organizations assert that:

  • Although they receive less regulatory review, exploration wells can be more dangerous than production wells because the drilling hazards in an exploration area are by definition unknown
  • Hazardous chemicals are used in the exploratory well construction process, and the risk of those chemicals moving into groundwater in the Delaware River Basin is exacerbated because of natural seismic activity in the area
  • The 11 wells in question do not meet the criteria for exploratory wells. Documentation indicates that some of these wells will be used not just for gathering data but for gas production, which circumvents part of the regulatory process required for production wells
  • Pennsylvania’s erosion, sedimentation, and storm water regulations for gas and oil companies require far less oversight than any other industrial activity in the state
  • The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s permit process, construction guidelines and emergency preparedness plans are insufficient to mitigate the risk factors posed by exploratory wells
  • Any drilling activities, vertical or horizontal, that take place in shale rock formations pose significant risks to human health and the environment

The commission’s reports were written by fish and wildlife biologist Robert M. Anderson, ecologist Danielle A. Kreeger, petroleum engineer Patrick M. O’Dell, biologist Erik Silldorf, ecologist John K. Jackson, ecologist Bernard W. Sweeney and public health researcher Conrad Daniel Volz.

The environmental organizations’ reports were written by engineer Michele E Adams, chemist Ronald E. Bishop, civil engineer Peter M. Demicco, petroleum engineer Susan L. Harvey, environmental scientist Glenn C. Miller, engineer Emmett M. Owens, geologist Paul A. Rubin, and medical toxicologist Daniel T. Teitelbaum.

Edward N. Cahn, a former federal judge, has been appointed by the Delaware River Basin Commission to preside over the January hearing. Cahn will submit his recommendations to the commission, which will vote on them at a future public meeting.

Inform our investigations: Do you have information or expertise relevant to this story? Help us and journalists around the country by sharing your stories and experiences.

Daniel Robert Snodgrass

Dec. 6, 2010, 9:42 p.m.

“None of the other parties involved in the hearing responded to requests to comment or to provide ProPublica their expert reports or other relevant documents.”

Expert testimony, hearings and commissions…while Corporate GREED ‘fracks’ us.

One might believe the CEO’s of these ‘giants of business’ have no pulse.

While visiting western Pennsylvania family this summer and discussing Fracking a good friend pointed out that for several years now they have not been able to drink what was once excellent well water at their home. “It was caused by some gas well drilling in the area of course we don’t know which well caused it but ever since then our water has been contaminated.”

John Droz jr.

Dec. 6, 2010, 11:13 p.m.

It’s good that some environmental groups have asked for a thorough assessment of hydrofracking. Too bad they haven’t done the same thing for wind energy — which is worse.

Most environmental groups are blindly supporting wind energy. The fact is that there is no such thing as wind energy by itself.

Wind energy MUST be paired with a conventional source of energy. Country-wide the most frequent source is gas.

So, it should be clearly understood, that support for wind energy is defacto support for more gas power.

More gas power at this point requires more affordable and plentiful US gas supplies, which means hydrofracking.

Therefore, anyone who supports wind energy is (in effect) supporting hydrofracking.

See EnergyPresentation.Info for the facts.

Kevin Uehlinger

Dec. 7, 2010, 12:45 a.m.

This debate is only going to intensify in years to come. The Marcellus Shale is full of natural gas to be harvested. It’s going to take a lot of effort from all of us to protect our water and land from the profiteering potential. People who own private land will be enticed to lease for ridiculous sums. The only chance we have of protecting our resources is to achieve some kind of federal or state regulatory oversight—none of which exists at the moment. The move by the DRBC is a good one and I hope that other agencies will follow…. as well as legislatures. The best thing we all can do, right now, is write letters to our state and federal representatives urging regulatory oversight. The federal exemption for hydrofracking from the Clean Drinking Water Act is a crime against the public and must be remedied.

John Droz,

“Too bad they haven’t done the same thing for wind energy — which is worse.”

I hope you don’t honestly beleive this. I’m fully aware of the negatives regarding wind energy but how can you think that any of the end results could possibly be worse than those posed by hydro-fracking?

John Droz, jr.

Dec. 7, 2010, 7:57 a.m.

Nate:

As a person who has worked extensively on water quality issues for 30 years, I do believe it.

The consequences to human health are comparable, but the biggest difference is that, world wide, wind power will affect a thousand times the number of people that hydrofracking will.

That is simply horrific.

carlos briones

Dec. 7, 2010, 10:45 a.m.

A more appropriate title might be:

Advocacy Groups Opposing Natural Gas Development Pressure DRBC to Prohibit all Natural Gas Exploration - Including Vertical Wells Using Traditional Low-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing.

Another good headline for a similar story:

Pending legislation is waiting for Governor Patterson’s signature to prohibit all hydraulic fracturing in New York State – including traditional low-volume methods that have been used thousands of times without incident.  Affected workers instructed to apply for mythical green jobs – or try to get cushy state jobs.

And all of this going on while the MILLIONS of dollars from the gas industry are lining the pockets of the politicians and officials who will decide all of this.  Corbett alone got over one million dollars from gas companies for his campaign.  Woe to PENNA with him in office. 

And for anyone critical of the ‘tree huggers’ for even checking this out…..the ENVIRONMENT happens to be for ALL citizens…...............even if you are calling for ‘drill, baby, drill’.  Is any royalty really worth the destruction of our own locale?

D'Ann Williams

Dec. 7, 2010, 6:07 p.m.

I don’t know what all the fuss is, hydrolic fracturing seems “natural” enough to me.  Please people…since when does a T-Rex not look like a T-Rex?  Industry will go to all lengths to extend their profit margins at the expense of the environment and our health…WAKE UP!  Think about your kids and grandkids, what in the world are they going to have to deal with long after we are gone but we were able to buy that Ford Mustang and powerboat.

You know, I am old enough to remember Jane Fonda saying the same negative things about nuke industry.  the French did not listen and they are not dependent upon the Arabs for their electricity.
What the heck, the acquifers are 800 feet deep at the very most, and the fracking is well below.  please someone explain how anything is going to penetrate almost 2 miles of rock formatiion.?

The enormous pressure deep down will contribute to how aquifers will get polluted. The poisonos fracking fluids have a 20% flowback to the well head and invariably there will be spills of these hazardous petrochemical based on the surface.

Well casings are not infallible as demonstrasted by the deep water spill. Wells go through layers of rock that even are potentially radioactive and or contain chemical compounds that may contribute to casing breakdown over years. Since the life of a well is 15 years what becomes of the abandoned well casing in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years?

In addition the specific gravity of petroleum products in the fracking fluid as well as the assoiciated petro chemicals released by fracking will invariably rise to the surface, this is a basic law of hydro dynamics and fluid osmosis. Remeber that for fracking to work it has to destroy the structural integrity of the shale which in turn coud negativbely impact the geologic integrity of adjacent rock formations.

Beverly Strain-Eads

Dec. 8, 2010, 4:55 p.m.

Most of what I am reading concerns the Marcellus Shale.  Is there any investigation going on concerning the Fayetteville Shale which stretches all the way across Arkansas east and west?  This is causing devastation of crop lands to both farmers and ranchers,  Are any of your readers involved in tihis shale development?

DONALD MCNAUGHTON

Dec. 8, 2010, 5:22 p.m.

N OT ONE OF THE COMPANIES INVOLVED IN THE MARCELLUS PLAY IS TELLING THE TRUTH! EVEN THE ONES DOING THE SUPPORT WORK THAT SELL INFORMATION TO THE GAS COMPANIES. THEY MISLED PEOPLE AND HAVE HIRED GUNS RUNNING LOOSE WITH A BADGE MAKING FALSE STATEMENTS ABOUT CITIZENS. YOU CAN NOT DO ANY THING TO PROTECT YOUR SELF FROM THIS ABUSE OF POWER BY THESE HIRED GUNS! I KNOW THAT MY COMMENTS ABOUT THIS WILL COME BACK TO GET ME. THEY ARE ALREADY TRYING THEIR BEST TO GET ME BUT I WILL NEVER GIVE UP! JUST DO THE RIGHT THING AND STOP PUSHING AMERICAN CITIZENS AROUND! THEY HAVE YET TO TRY TO BRIBE ME BUT JUST HAVE THESE GUN TOTEING BULLIES LIE ABOUT ME WITH NO EVIDENCE TO BACK IT UP AND THE LEGAL SYSTEM ALLOWS THIS. WE NEED OUR COUNTRY GIVEN BACK TO THE PEOPLE.

Bruce J. Burkness

Dec. 9, 2010, 9:04 p.m.

What do they do with the water they have used in the fracking process?  Well, in our area they take it up to the “Warren Treatment Plant” in Warren, PA.  There, they let it out into the Alleghany River.  Their solution to polution is dillution.  in 2005 Dick Chainey got the industry exempt from the clean water act for Marcellas shale drilling.  In Cameron County the water trucks have opened up their valves to just let it out onto our back roads.  My understanding is that they are using ‘super mist-ers’ in other counties.  Air, water, methane gas, radon & earthquakes are just some of the unanswered questions.  In New York state they are waiting until more is known.  Here in PA, we’ll give them card blanch with Corbett.  Drink the cool-aid, people!  Drink the cool-aid!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Fracking

Fracking: Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

More »

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