Sunday, November 28, 2010

Is Safe Drilling Possible?

“Safe” is a relative term, says Louis Allstadt. Drilling might not ever be “safe” but it sure can be made a lot safer. A couple weeks ago Allstadt, who worked in the oil and gas industry for more than 30 years, outlined about what “safer drilling” might look like.

For one thing, gas companies will have to use safer drilling fluids that are not composed of toxic chemicals and carcinogens, Allstadt said. “And there would have to be no exemptions!” Right now gas companies enjoy special exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act and other environmental laws.

Allstadt proposed that drillers use some kind of marker – either colored fluid or an isotope – to tag their fracking fluid. “That’s one way to hold companies accountable for any leaks or spills they cause,” he said.

He also stressed the importance for conducting a seismic review of the well before fracturing. This would help drillers identify cracks and fissures that might provide pathways for toxins to migrate to aquifers.

“We need better casing standards,” Allstadt emphasized. Casing integrity is vital to protecting groundwater from drilling contamination – something the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection has noted in their newest regulations. In addition to improving the quality of cement, Allstadt pointed out that drillers must check the casings prior to fracking.

“If there is any question about cement integrity, then don’t frack,” Allstadt said.

Drillers need contingency plans, too. Allstadt noted that at a recent blow-out in PA, the blow-out preventer didn’t work. Whether it is drilling a relief well or flaring gas, workers need to have a strategy in place for releasing pressure if it builds up too high, he said.

In addition to recommending tanks to hold fracking and flowback fluids (rather than pits) and better treatment of returned drilling fluids, including re-use, Allstadt pointed out the need for greater setbacks.

Currently, wells may be drilled 150 feet from a drinking water well. “But that’s too close,” Allstadt said. “We need to protect drinking water sources.”

Allstadt doesn’t believe drilling can be made as safe as airline travel – there’s just too little regulatory oversight for that, he says – he believes the industry can make it safer. But that will only happen if people push much harder for protective regulations.

Allstadt spoke at the “Real Impacts of Gas Drilling” forum held Tuesday, November 16 at Trinity Episcopal Church in Elmira. The forum was organized by People for a Healthy Environment, the Coalition to Protect New York, the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, and Pax Christi Upstate New York.


  1. The only people who claim that drilling is safe are the ones who are doing the drilling or getting money in their mailbox.

    I agree with Louis Alstadt, but am curious as to why now he's coming forward. Did he have this revelation after he retired? I'm not attacking, just curious as to what his motivation may be.

    I would also add the following to Alstadt's suggestions:

    1) The colored markers or isotopes should be unique to each operator. This would ensure true owenership when the marker shows up in someone's water.

    2) Seismic testing: This should and can be done now. The operators use seismic testing to find the gas, they can use it to determine well integrity.

    3) Landfarming: Landfarming may only be done on the lease owner/mineral right owner, but may not be done within 600 feet from someone else property or on a slope or grade where runoff is probable.

    4) Water testing: Operator fully funds drinking water/well water testing prior to and post fracking, testing is done at an independent lab with no ties to Industry.

    5) Regulator reviews and signs off on each an every step. ANY water or soil contamination is the responsibility of the operator and will be held fully accountable.

    6) Each operator must have full coverage insurance through the State for each well drilled. If any leak, spill, fire, accident or other incident occurs that damages property and/or places human life at risk is a claim OR each operator must place enough funds in escrow for each well to fully cover the costs of any clean up or damage.

    7) Each operator must provide-at their expense-a full contingency plan to the state-and the people no later than the signing of the lease that clearly spells out what steps will be taken in the event of disaster. By the way, everything is a disaster. Every leaking tank, valve not fully shit, thief hatch not fully secured, etc.

    8) Each well site will also have installed vapor recovery systems at the full expense of the operator.

    9) Any emissions or code violations will result in the well being shut down until the issue(s) are corrected to the satisfaction of the regulator.

    10) Setbacks: Setbacks will be no less than 1500 feet from a home, school, church, hospital or other places where people congregate. If the wells cannot be drilled without having to ask for variances, then it's going to be too close to people and must not be done.

    11) Any politician or person appointed to govern or regulate, their spouse or family member who invests in, receives funding of any kind, royalties, stock or other financial instruments or otherwise benefits from an operator must recuse themselves from any vote involving gas development in their community. Politicians can be in bed with Industry or they can represent their community, but cannot do both.

    Since drilling so safe, and accidents, spills, leaks rarely happen, there is no such thing as ground water contamination through hydraulic fracturing, emissions are fully controlled and at a safe level, and proper permits are always obtained, then no operator should have a problem with agreeing to the above.

    If operators can afford to invest $1-2 million in each well, then they can afford a few more thousand to ensure it's being done right and with respect to people and their private property.

  2. Allstadt will be part of panel at the Trumansburg high school auditorium on Wednesday, Dec. 8 at 6:30 p.m.

    Other panelists include attorney Helen Slottje, biologist/author Sandra Steingraber, Caroline supervisor Don Barber and Dimock, Penn. residents Julie and Craig Saunter.

    The event is sponsored by Back to Democracy, a local left-wing discussion group.