Sunday, January 31, 2010

PA Governor wants more well inspectors and tougher regs

On Thursday, January 28, Pennsylvania Governor Edward Rendell announced that his state would step up actions to protect residents and the environment from the impact of increased natural gas exploration. He's directing the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to hire 68 new well inspectors to join the 100 or so currently on staff. Funding for the new positions, says Rendell, will come from money generated by new, higher permitting fees that were instituted just last year.

But that's not all. Rendell wants to see stronger oil and gas regulations, and last Thursday he listed a few. Specifically, he said the new regulations will: raise standards for well casings and pipes; require drilling companies to restore or replace water supplies they pollute; require well operators to inspect every existing well quarterly and report the results of those inspections to DEP; and require lower well pressures.  

Why the sudden flurry of administrative activity? It seems that interest in Marcellus Shale is growing by leaps and bounds. The folks in the gas industry have told Rendell that they expect to apply for 5,200 permits this year - nearly three times the number of permits the state issued in all of 2009.

The other reason is that PA needs more well inspectors. Last year DEP could only conduct a bit over 14,500 drill site inspections, and they've got well over 100,000 active wells in the state. Those inspections resulted in nearly 680 enforcement actions against drillers for violations. 

In early January the DEP fined Pennsylvania-based Atlas Resources for violations at 13 wells, including spills of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the sites. These spills are significant because they happened repeatedly during what has been characterized as “routine transfer of fluids”. Later in the month DEP fined M.R. Dirt, a company that removes waste from drilling sites, $6,000 for spilling more than seven tons of drilling dirt along a public road. 

Before that, in December the DEP fined Chesapeake and Schlumberger or hydrochloric acid spills. In November they fined Cabot Oil and Gas for a series of spills, including a fracturing fluid spill. And the month before that, DEP fined Texas-based Range Resources $23,500 for spilling nearly 5,000 gallons of wastewater, including hydraulic fracturing fluids, into a tributary of Cross Creek Lake, a protected watershed near Pittsburgh.

The new draft regulations were developed through open meetings with industry experts and are open for public comment. You can read the proposed rules here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

EPA asks for Citizen's Help to Report Drilling Incidents

(overspray of drilling slurry; photo courtesy of Wes Gillingham, Catskill Mountainkeepers)

Like any industry, drilling for natural gas is bound to cause accidents and spills. As the pace of drilling picks up, so too will the corresponding rate of spills and incidents. This is already happening in Pennsylvania, reports ProPublica.

Even the EPA is concerned about the potential for increased spills and illegal disposal of drilling muds, sludge and wastewater. Earlier this week Region 3 announced the creation of a new “Eyes on Drilling” tip line. They created the tip line for citizens to report non-emergency "suspicious activity" related to oil and natural gas development that they observe. Although the announcement came from Region 3, they indicated they'll take calls from people anywhere in the country and act as a clearinghouse for citizen reports.

The toll free tip line number is 1-877-919-4EPA ( 1-877-919-4372) and reports may be e-mailed to . Those who don’t wish to identify themselves may provide tips anonymously.

In some cases a spill or release of hazardous material, including oil, presents an emergency. In those cases people should call the National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802 .

EPA explained that the tip line grew out of "increased public concern about environmental impacts of oil and natural gas drilling" over the past few months. A lot of this concern was particularly focused on the development of Marcellus Shale.
You may read the EPAs press release here .
Tips for how to report suspicious activities are here.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Meet Marcellus Up Close & Personal

Pick up a chunk of Marcellus shale and you immediately understand why energy companies are interested in it: it’s dark, like coal, and leaves a greasy smear on your hand. Like all sedimentary rock, the Marcellus shale was created by compressing layers of mud together for a long, long time. 

If you could slice through the earth here in upstate NY, you’d notice that the rocks stacked up like layers of a birthday cake  –  11,000 feet of sandstones, limestones and shales. And Marcellus shale is only one of the gas-bearing layers; Oriskany sandstone, located just below Marcellus, and Trenton-Black River, another four to five thousand feet down, also produce gas in this area.

Unlike sandstone, Marcellus shale is composed of fine-grained clay particles so tightly packed that there are very tiny spaces – pores – between the particles. Those tiny spaces are where the natural gas is trapped - and that's what makes getting the gas out so difficult. Not only that, the pores are not connected to each other which means that gas can’t travel from one pore to the next. The only way to extract gas from a stone with such low porosity and low permeability is to break it apart using a process called hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing may seem like a new-fangled invention, but according to Tony Ingraffea. Ingraffea, a civil engineering professor at Cornell, the technique could have been used for hundreds of years. He believes the Romans introduced water into cracks to aid in breaking rock. Hydro-fracking is all about physics, Ingraffea says. A rock is strong when you push on it, but weak when you pull on it, or put tension on it. Engineers use water pressure to put tension on rock, taking advantage of the rock's weakness.

Initially hydro-fracking of oil and gas wells was used to open existing cracks - to "stimulate" the flow of oil or gas by making existing fractures bigger.  "As long as the pores in the rock are interconnected, you can get oil to flow," Ingraffea says. But in shale the pores are not interconnected, which makes the rock impermeable to water. "That's good from a fracking point of view," Ingraffea says, "because the water will create fractures without going into the rock." And the way shale is made - with thin layers of mud compressed together - means the rock will fracture more easily on those planes, going further than, say, a crack trying to travel through a crystalline formation.

But fracking is just one small piece of the picture, Ingraffea says. People don't understand just how industrialized the process of extracting gas from shale is, and the number of wells that will be required to make extraction economically viable for the energy companies.According to new research from Terry Engelder at Pennsylvania State University, we'll be eventually looking at multiple wells on 80-acre units. As others have already said, gas drilling will be the most profound land use issue to face this region.

Friday, January 22, 2010

There's more than Marcellus beneath our feet

(Trenton Black River well  drilled on Nobles Hill, Van Etten; photo by Rusty Keeler) 

Even as the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) drafted the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) and collected more than 10,000 comments, the Minerals Division continued to issue drilling permits. Last year gas companies submitted 289 permit applications to the DEC and the agency issued 240 permits for drilling gas wells. That’s about half of the number of permits they approved in 2008, but a clear indication that if a company wants to drill for gas, DEC is open for business.

Just last month DEC issued two well for Trenton-Black River wells in the town of Big Flats – and it looks as though more permits will be issued soon. Last week, the residents of Van Etten learned that Epsilon Energy has applied for three Oriskany well permits in their town.

Sandy Florian, a representative from Western Land Services, dropped into the Van Etten town board meeting to inform them that Epsilon had applied for the permits plus another just over the border in Barton. The wells won't be fracked, he assured the town councilors.

  Dave Matz, vice president of operations at Epsilon, verified that fracking was not contemplated "at this time". He said they would have to evaluate it once they got drilling.Matz expects DEC to issue the permits soon, possibly by next week. But the actual drilling won't start for another month - first they have to construct the well pads. Once the drilling starts, each well should take about five to seven days to drill, Matz said.

These half-dozen wells are just the tip of the iceberg, though. Florian told the Van Etten town board that Epsilon intends to submit applications for 40 additional wells across Erin, Van Etten and Barton. Matz, however, wouldn’t confirm that number. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

News from the Gathering Line

The Gathering Line is a round-up of oil & gas drilling news brought to you by people writing about their communities. They come together under the banner of the National Alliance for Drilling Reform . Here are some of the stories they are sharing on their blogs this week:

Something STINKS about TCEQ's recent Fort Worth air study. Considering that the Barnett Shale has a staggering asthma rate of 25% compared to 7.1% statewide, TXsharon thinks it's time for an intervention in Texas. Bluedaze: DRILLING REFORM FOR TEXAS

Follow the FRACTURE and you will find fraccing! Read it at Cheap Tricks and Costly Truths.

Flower Mound Town Council will vote Thursday night on changing the zoning and ordinance to allow a Waste Water Centralized Collection Facility. What is a CCF and what will it mean to Flower Mound and their neighboring communities? Read about it at stopthedrilling

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Concerned citizens + 24 hours + internet access = crowded town hall meeting

(photo of the Pulteney Town Board meeting by David Walczak)
On Tuesday, January 12 not many people in the Finger Lakes region knew that Chesapeake Appalachia LLC had submitted an application to convert a natural gas well into a disposal well for gas drilling wastewater. But 24 hours later the news had been sent to list-serves across the region and by the time the Pulteney town supervisor gaveled the town meeting to order on Wednesday, 60 people had managed to cram into the meeting room and another 20 or so packed the vestibule just outside.

At issue: Conversion of the Bergstrasser 1 natural gas well into a disposal well. The Bergstrasser well, drilled in 1997 to tap gas trapped within the Trenton-Black River formation, is located just northeast of the intersection of Armstrong Road and County Route 78 in the town of Pulteney – less than one mile west, and uphill, from Keuka Lake. The area is home to a number of vineyards and wineries, and is not only part of the wine trail but a tourist attraction.

Chesapeake sent an Environmental Assessment form to NY Department of Environmental Conservation on October 2, around the same time they filed an application for a UIC (Underground Injection Control) well permit with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

According to reports from those who attended the Pulteney Town Board meeting last Wednesday, January 13, Town Supervisor Bill Weber made it clear that the town had only learned of the proposal some two weeks ago the DEC asked him to let the DEC be the lead agency on the SEQRA review of the project. Without consulting the rest of the town board, Weber gave DEC the nod to take over as lead agency. His reasoning: the town board would have reached the same decision. 

Weber also said that the town has no involvement with the project – the town will only be involved when Chesapeake applies for a special use permit, and that had not been done yet. He assured people that the town Planning Board will schedule public hearings. Weber also mentioned that because he has leases with Chesapeake he will recuse himself from any decision-making processes on the application.

What Weber neglected to say was that he had been corresponding with ALL Consulting, who was completing the environmental assessments for Chesapeake. On September 23, Weber sent Steve Dutnell of ALL Consulting an e-mail letter noting that this was bound to be a hot topic and warning Dutnell to “get all your EPA and NYS DEC permits in place” before approaching the town for the necessary special permits.

Turning old Trenton-Black River wells into disposal wells may just be the trend of the future. Last year Fortuna received a permit from DEC to test the Mallula well in Van Etten, to see if it would be suitable for use as an injection well. Public outrage has kept the injectivity tests from happening, though the permit to conduct the testing may be renewed every 6 months over the next four years.

As more wells are drilled in the region – especially if the number of Marcellus wells is anywhere near the thousands anticipated – wastewater disposal will become an increasingly critical issue. While dumping salt water down old gas wells looks like a good solution to the DEC and the EPA, it looks like a lousy solution to residents who worry about contamination of their drinking water wells.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

SRBC pulls the plug on water use for Marcellus drilling company

(photo of water pumping station courtesy of SRBC)
updated January 14 (below)
On Tuesday, January 12, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) ordered Novus Operating LLC, a Texas-based natural gas drilling company, to halt all water-related activities at two Marcellus drilling sites in Tioga County, Pennsylvania. Novus is a relatively small company out of Royse City, Texas - and has applied for only three of the 2000 or so Marcellus shale permits that PA DEP approved last year.

The wells receiving the stop work order are located in Brookfield Township. According to Susan Obleski at SRBC, the company began drilling the wells without prior approval from the Commission. The SRBC order also prohibits Novus from continuing to drill or withdrawing water for use at those two drilling pad sites, or any other location that may not yet be disclosed.

Paul Swartz, executive director for SRBC told the press that "the Commission considers these violations by Novus to be intentional, and we will respond accordingly. Commission staff had clearly informed company officials of the need for prior approval before undertaking the projects.”

Swartz added, “While the Commission’s order also prohibits withdrawals or use of water, we did not find any water resource impacts at these sites since the company had not gotten to the point of withdrawing, transporting or using any water.” At least not yet.

According to SRBC, Novus has 30 days to submit an application to the Commission for water withdrawal and consumptive use, as well as the construction activities it has already completed. But for now the spigot has been turned off. Novus is prohibited from any further water-related actions until SRBC reviews and acts on the application. And the Commission may decide to impose civil penalties against Novus for its "willful violations".

The thing Susan Obleski can't figure out is why Novus didn't apply for the needed permits. "They already have several approvals," she said. "Furthermore SRBC had talked to them ahead of time, but they still went ahead and began water-related constructions."

Obleski explained that Novus, like any company, must tell SRBC where they are getting the water for each well they drill, and must obtain approvals before they even begin work on excavating impoundments or putting in pipes to pump water.

The next step is figuring out what fine SRBC will levy. Past fines have ranged from $75,000 to $450,000. "The fact that they didn't use any water yet - didn't impact a water resource - will help them in this regard," Obleski said. "But the fact that they were notified and went ahead without approvals will certainly count against them."

 To learn more about how the SRBC regulates natural gas well development projects, go to

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Drilling goes on without Marcellus

Just because the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hasn't been granting permits for drilling in Marcellus doesn't mean that there's no gas drilling going on in the state. Last year gas companies submitted 289 permit applications. DEC issued 240 permits for gas wells – about half of the number they permitted in 2008. But the fact remains that DEC is continuing to issue permits under the 1992 GEIS.

As if to underscore this, there are two well permits that have recently been issued for Trenton-Black River wells in the town of Big Flats, and two more pending. One of these is for a well in the town of Dryden. On October 19, Anschutz Exploration Corporation submitted an application to drill the "Cook 1" well, just south of where Irish Settlement Road intersects Route 13. 

The DEC may not be concerned about the impact of this well, but the neighbors are. One is Joe
Osmeloski. He lives just north – and downhill- from the proposed well site and is concerned that drilling activities may contaminate the two streams that border his horse farm.

The streams originate in Yellow Barn State Forest and flow very close to the proposed drilling site before they reach Joe's farm. “My horses drink from those streams," he said.

Drilling into the Trenton-Black River formation doesn't use as much water as Marcellus wells, and it doesn't involve the same kind of hydro-fracking. But drillers do use drilling muds and chemicals reduce friction on the drill-bits and inhibit bacterial growth in the drilling mud. They also inject a weak solution of hydrochloric acid into the rock to dissolve any residual limestone in the formation and "stimulate" gas production.

But that doesn't comfort Joe. "They [drillers] only have to be 50 feet from a stream. Fifty feet is absurd! ” He worries that, should the streams be contaminated, he will lose his livelihood and the farm he has worked so hard to build over the past two decades.

Meanwhile, drilling companies are already filing permit applications for horizontal Marcellus wells. The DEC has a bit of work to do before finalizing the rules for high-volume hydro-fracking in the tight shales - they've still got to read through the 10,000 or more comments on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) before issuing final rules. But the rush for permit applications has begun. There are already 10 applications for Marcellus wells in Candor and another 12 pending for the wee town of Erin.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Wells in Our Back Yard

Just because they can't drill in Marcellus doesn't mean that there's no gas activity in upstate NY. In fact, just last month the Dryden town council members learned that the Anschutz Exploration Corporation has applied for a permit to drill a well into the Trenton-Black River formation.

"This came as a complete surprise," says councilman Jason Leifer. There are no active wells in the town, though there have been a half-dozen dry holes drilled in the past few years.

Trenton-Black River wells are drilled deep - about 10,000 feet down into the dolomitic limestone that underlies the layers and layers of (possibly more productive) Marcellus and Utica shales. They are relatively new wells, like the Stoscheck well above (drilled in 2006). They are drilled with the latest technology and the wellheads, tanks and gathering lines are shiny.

But not all the wells in this area are bright and shiny. Even fairly young ones drilled only a decade ago don't age well in our northeastern winters.

This is the Koabel well located just off Rumsey Hill Rd in Van Etten (Chemung County) NY. Drilling started in June of 1997 and by July 18 the well was completed.

The Koabel well goes down 3732 feet to tap into the Oriskany formation. Folks who used to get royalty checks say that they haven't seen any money from the well for the past four or five years, and they figured that the well had been plugged and abandoned. But according to the DEC website it's still an active well, producing gas - though at a level too low to provide enough energy to fuel a single home for one day.

The tanks look worse for the wear: corroded, flaking, and not terribly reliable.

Then there's the gathering pipeline that connects the Koabel well with another well uphill of it, and carries the gas down to an even larger pipeline. It's been said that a thrifty farmer can repair his tractor using chewing gum and baling twine, but one would hope that a pipeline ostensibly carrying gas from producing wells might receive a bit more TLC than this.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Can Towns Protect their Aquifers from Gas Drilling Impacts?

I live in a small town in upstate NY, a town whose water supply is dependent upon groundwater. Groundwater, as it turns out, that is intimately connected with the rivers, streams, lakes, ponds, and ephemeral wetlands that abound in the forests and hills surrounding us. A couple weeks ago Steve Winkley, a source water protection specialist from the New York Rural Water Association, met with village, town and county officials to discuss sole source aquifers and how we might protect our water supply.

Winkley listed a number of reasons communities create source water protection plans: to eliminate or reduce potential contamination threats; to ensure long-term sustainability of the system; to minimize impacts from external sources; and to plan for contingencies in event of an emergency. While the village is interested in maintaining the long-term viability of their municipal wells, the town is interested in minimizing potential impacts from imminent industrial gas drilling.

A watershed protection plan would focus on the Catatonk Creek aquifer and the watershed that feeds into the system - but first the town and village need more information about the source water. Being a rural area, the "public water system" includes two village wells, the two or three cafe's in town, a recreational camp and a couple mobile home parks.

A "public water system" is defined as one that provides water to at least 25 people, and receives certain protections in the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) proposed rules for drilling Marcellus and other shales. But most people in town get their water from individual drinking water wells - and according to Winkley there are at least 2600 sprinkled throughout the hills and valleys of the town. He estimates that 71 percent of the people - or more -  get their water from the Catatonk Creek aquifer.

But the aquifer is not simply a single layer of water flowing beneath the ground. While some drinking wells tap into a shallow layer that runs as deep as 30 feet, others tap into the deeper layer that is 50 to 130 feet down. It is the shallow wells that are more at risk from contamination.

Right now the risk of contamination comes from close proximity to septic systems and surface spills. But Winkley is concerned about potential impacts of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on the aquifer. Proposed wells located within 1,000 feet of a municipal water supply would normally trigger an individual environmental impact statement (EIS). However, he noted, that doesn’t include community systems such as the local mobile home parks.

Winkley listed measures for the community to consider with respect to protecting source water: land-use regulations (zoning), wellhead protection laws, easements, and water monitoring and testing. He emphasized that when towns contemplate industrial activity, such as drilling, they need to remember that all water sources are connected. Streams flowing from the hills recharge the aquifer, and the recharge areas are important places to protect.

Meanwhile, two towns in Colorado - the town of Palisade and the city of Grand Junction - collaborated with a gas company to develop a watershed protection plan. They were concerned about risks to surface water from construction (roads, well pads, and pipelines), storm water runoff, and spills of drilling fluids, fracking chemicals or brine. Potential groundwater risks included percolation of contaminants from surface spills, leaky casings, and other below-ground accidents.

You can read their watershed protection plan here, but the key provisions include:
  • Baseline studies- to define and map streams, lakes, springs, ponds and other sensitive source water-related areas.
  • Clustered Development Well Pad Spacing – by clustering development there will be fewer roads, pipelines and other impacts on the environment as well as reduced traffic. 
  • Emergency Response Plan – the gas company will prepare an emergency response plan and provide training for local emergency squad
  • Use of Closed Loop drilling systems instead of reserve pits
  • A commitment to using “green” hydraulic fracturing procedures, processes and materials. This means that fracking chemicals used in the watershed area will be “biodegradable, non-toxic, neutral pH, residual free, non-corrosive, non-polluting, and non-hazardous in the forms and concentrations being used.” No known carcinogens will be used.