Monday, September 1, 2014

243 and counting... contaminated water cases in PA

Back in July the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) admitted that oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of 2007.

Finally – six years into the Marcellus gas boom – DEP has released details of 243 cases in which oil and gas companies were found to have contaminated private drinking water wells. This past week the agency posted online links to the documents. Names and identifying information has been redacted, but you can read the documents here.

Some of these cases date back to 2008 but, when you look at the dates, DEP never got around to responding to them until months - or in some cases - years later. The cases include some where a single drilling operation affected multiple water wells.

Problems listed in the documents include: spills (waste fluids and other pollutants); high levels of methane gas; ethane; heavy metals; and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. These documents cover drilling-related water well problems in 22 counties, but most of the cases come from Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Lycoming counties.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

PA Researchers ask: Will increased family income from gas leasing benefit child-wellbeing?

A couple days ago Penn State University announced that a team of sociology researchers received a grant to study family income and well-being of children in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York. The burning question: is there a difference in the quality of life and academic achievement in children growing up in families that receive gas drilling money compared with those in the same area who receive no money?

According to PSU, the project is supported by a $150,000 grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. Molly Martin, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, is leading the team of researchers who plan to review and analyze data from Pennsylvania and New York school districts located above the Marcellus Shale region. Using Geographic Information Analysis (GIS), they will be able to merge annual maps of Marcellus Shale wells and gas pipelines and locate them within school district boundaries. They will be able to study individual data in various categories by school district, analyzing differences in such things as health outcomes, academic achievement, obesity, teen pregnancy, high school graduation and juvenile delinquency.  

You would think this sort of research – the “do kids do better in families with more money” – has already been done. And you’d be right. In the 2002 Winter/Spring issue of the journal Children and Welfare Reform, Sheila Zedlweski writes, “It is well documented that children in families with greater incomes do better across a wide range of indicators. Economically secure children tend to be healthier and do better in school; they are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior and are more likely to graduate from high school and to earn higher incomes as adults. In contrast, poorer children tend to have fewer opportunities for success.”

Nearly a dozen years later Duncan, et al revisit the issue in the Sept. 2011 issue of Dev Psychol (vol. 47, no. 5). After reviewing the literature and data they suggest that “…a $1,000 increase in annual income increases young children's achievement by 5%–6% of a standard deviation. As such, our results suggest that family income has a policy-relevant, positive impact on the eventual school achievement of preschool children.” Their study, “Does Money Matter?”  – along with loads of links to other similar studies – is posted here in the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

So do we really need one more study about the effect of income on children’s wellbeing? Dr. Martin she sees this as a “rare opportunity for a natural experiment,” as she told the PSU reporter. “Some families will receive a significant number of royalty checks while others will not,” she said, “because of two factors – one determined by a geological formation created over 300 million years ago (Marcellus Shale) and the other by government policies decided in Harrisburg, PA and Albany, NY.

A more interesting question might be whether the wealth created for a few through gas royalties creates income inequality that affects the well-being of children in those communities.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

PA admits Oil & gas operations damaged water supplies

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection admits that oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of 2007. This picture is worth a thousand words, but you can read the entire  article in Post Gazette.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

PA Regulators Unprepared for Rapid Shale Gas Development

Bradford County, PA
Today Pennsylvania auditor general Eugene DePasquale told the press that the state’s rapid shale gas development outpaced the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to oversee industry and protect water quality. The department, he said, was hampered in doing their jobs by understaffing, lack of modern technological resources, and inconsistent policies.

“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” said DePasquale.

The audit, covering 2009 – 2012, revealed that DEP failed to consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies. After reviewing a selection of 15 complaint files for confirmed water supply impact, auditors discovered that DEP issued just one order to a well operator to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply.

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”

Other issues outlined in the audit:

DEP did a poor job in communicating its investigation results to citizens who registered complaints with the department. The agency was not always timely in meeting statutory timeframes for response to complaints it did receive.

DEP’s complaint tracking system, used to monitor all environmental complaints including those that are oil and gas related, was ineffective as it did not provide management with reliable information to effectively manage the program.

Auditors were unable to measure how quickly DEP conducted initial inspection of shale gas wells, a basic regulatory responsibility, because of a lack of reliable data. They discovered DEP uses a 25-year-old policy on the frequency of inspections, which has a “loop hole,” that only requires DEP to conduct inspections as it has the financial and human resources to do so.

DEP does not post to its website all statutorily required inspection information. When the data was tested for accuracy, the auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and that as many as 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting.

DEP does not use a manifest system for tracking shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal. Instead DEP relies upon a disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.

Auditors found accessing DEP data to be a challenge, as it is a myriad of confusing web links and jargon. The information that was presented on its decades-old eFACTS database was often incomplete—requiring a physical review of hard-copy files at distant offices to verify the actual information.

Hard-copy files were no better. “Through our audit we found that even conducting a review of hard-copy files is not a fool-proof guarantee, as we found some supporting paper files were missing and DEP was not able to produce them,” DePasquale said.

Overall, the audit lists eight findings and 29 recommendations. Among the recommendations, auditors encouraged DEP to:

  •     always issue an administrative order to a well operator who DEP has determined adversely impacted a water supply—even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;
  •     develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;
  •     hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;
  •     implement an inspection policy that outlines explicitly the requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
  •     create a true manifest system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;
  •     reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner.

“Shale gas development offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public’s trust, health, and well-being,” DePasquale said.

A full copy of the audit report is available here.

Quakes & Frack Waste

USGE-NEIC ComCat & Oklahoma Geological Survey; May 2, 2014
Five years ago, Oklahoma averaged just two magnitude 3 or greater earthquakes a year. Last year there were 109. As of early July, this year’s count is already over 230 - and that’s just the magnitude 3 and above, temblors big enough to knock dishes off shelves and crack foundations. There are hundreds more low magnitude quakes, say state geologists.

Why all the quakes? They're due to increased injection of gas- and oil drilling waste fluids into disposal wells, says Cornell researcher Katie Keranen. She recently moved to Cornell from Oklahoma, where she'd been studying injection well-induced seismicity for a few years. Earlier this month she and her colleagues published a paper in the journal Sciencethat links injection wells to tremors. Their research also demonstrates that those quakes can occur up to 30 miles from the original injection well site.

Keranen got interested in the relationship between drilling and tremors after the Prague, Oklahoma quake in 2011. That  5.6-magnitude quake was centered just 45 miles northeast of Oklahoma City and was felt as far away as Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri. Her research led her to study swarms of quakes originating near the town of that same name.

"These seismic events didn’t match the tectonic sequence," she told me in an interview last week. As she explained it, a normal sequence looks like this: after one earthquake there may be subsequent tremors, but they’re in the same plane below the surface and tend to follow a linear streak. In the Jones swarm, and other gas-field related swarms, the quakes are more scattered over a broad area. And that piqued her curiosity.

The Jones swarm began within13 miles of the highest-rate waste fluid disposal wells in Oklahoma. So the first question Keranen asked was whether the number of injection wells had increased dramatically. They hadn’t. The increase in number of injection wells was gradual.

“The thing that has changed significantly is the volume of waste fluids pumped into the disposal wells,”she says.

Of all the injection wells she looked at, the four with the highest waste-disposal injection rates are southwest of Jones, situated in southeast Oklahoma City. Between them, they accept over 4 million barrels each month, most of it from dewatering production of oil. (Dewatering production wells produce huge amounts of waste fluid, most coming from the formation – up to 200 times as much waste fluid as oil.) Disposal rates jumped after 2004, when high-rate injection wells began operating.

All of that injected fluid presses against underground rocks. Originally, geologists thought that waste fluids injected deep underground would take a long time to work its way through the formations. But Keranen finds that it’s moving faster than expected and building up pressure farther away than expected, leading to seismic events 18 to 20 miles from the original injection site.  

Oklahoma seismicity: blue dots show earthquakes happening over 38 years from 1970 – 2008; red dots show earthquakes happening over past 5 1/2 years from 2009 – June, 2014. (source: USGS)
Given the increasing number of injection-well related quakes, and that most states have lots of faults beneath the surface, there is a clear need for better regulation of the underground injection wells. Already some municipalities are requiring operators to increase seismic monitoring and monitor well pressures. But that's not enough, says Keranen. Operators must also be willing to dial down the injection volumes. Ohio is already taking steps that require injection well operators to decrease injection volumes when they see an increase in their seismic meters, she says.

“Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma – they’ve had to learn a lot over these last ten years,” says Keranen. “We can apply their lessons to New York.”

(taken from my longer article in the July 21-27, 2014 issue of Tompkins Weekly