Sustained Outrage

Drilling fluid gushes from northern Pa. gas well

The outside of a natural gas drill site owned by Chesapeake Energy in Leroy Township, Pa., is shown on Wednesday, April 20, 2011.   A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and forcing the evacuation of seven families who live nearby as crews struggled to stop the gusher.   Chesapeake Energy Corp. lost control of the well site near Canton, in Bradford County, around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Tainted water continued to flow from the site Wednesday afternoon, though workers finally managed to prevent any more of it from reaching the stream.   No injuries were reported, and there was no explosion or fire.  (AP Photo/The Daily Review, C.J. Marshall)

From The Associated Press:

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — A blowout at a natural gas well in rural northern Pennsylvania spilled thousands of gallons of chemical-laced water Wednesday, contaminating a stream and leading officials to ask seven families who live nearby to evacuate as crews struggled to stop the gusher.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. lost control of the well site near Canton, in Bradford County, around 11:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said. Tainted water flowed from the site all day Wednesday, though by the mid-afternoon, workers had managed to divert the extremely salty water away from the stream.

No injuries were reported, and there was no explosion or fire.

“As a precautionary measure, seven families who live near the location have been temporarily relocated until all agencies involved are confident the situation has been contained. There have been no injuries or natural gas emissions to the atmosphere,” Chesapeake spokesman Brian Grove said in a statement.

Chesapeake said a piece of equipment failed late Tuesday while the well was being hydraulically fractured, or fracked. In the fracking process, millions of gallons of water, along with chemical additives and sand, are injected at high pressure down the well bore to break up the shale and release the gas.

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Governors race: Candidates talk fracking

In Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, our political staff asked the Democratic candidates for governor of West Virginia this question:

Do you believe West Virginia needs new regulations for oil and gas drilling? If so, what specific requirements should be in the legislation?

Here are their answers:

Jeff Kessler

Yes. More DEP inspectors and regulations that include protection of our water resources; protection of landowner surface rights; repair of our roads and highways; fair distribution of the production royalties to mineral right owners; that West Virginia residents are employed in the industry and that adequate severance dollars are collected.

John Perdue

Before we start drilling in the Marcellus Shale, we should first set regulations that will allow us to extract the gas in an environmentally safe way, provide protections for our water supply and establish landowner’s rights.

Natalie Tennant

Responsible development of our natural resources will allow West Virginia to create thousands of new jobs and strategic investment in education, research and technology. We must, however, ensure we protect our environment, our roads and our communities. We must also ensure companies hire West Virginians for West Virginia work.

Rick Thompson

Yes, and that’s why I proposed a special session to deal with the issue. Producers need a process that is understandable, attainable and reasonable. Communities need to be assured that their groundwater and infrastructure are protected and surface owners need assurance their rights are protected.

Earl Ray Tomblin –

Yes. The Marcellus Shale presents an enormous economic opportunity, and I support drilling in a responsible and reasonable manner. I proposed additional funding for inspectors to ensure compliance with regulations, and I will continue pushing the Legislature to provide that money and adopt reasonable regulations.

House report details fracking chemicals

This just in (and apparently the basis for a New York Times story) from the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Democratic members and staff:

WASHINGTON, D.C. —  Today Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman, Natural Resources Committee Ranking Member Edward J. Markey, and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Ranking Member Diana DeGette released a new report that summarizes the types, volumes, and chemical contents of the hydraulic fracturing products used by the 14 leading oil and gas service companies. The report contains the first comprehensive national inventory of chemicals used by hydraulic fracturing companies during the drilling process.

“Hydraulic fracturing has helped to expand natural gas production in the United States, but we must ensure that these new resources don’t come at the expense of public health,” said Rep. Waxman.  “This report shows that these companies are injecting millions of gallons of products that contain potentially hazardous chemicals, including known carcinogens. I urge EPA and DOE to make certain that we have strong protections in place to prevent these chemicals from entering drinking water supplies.”

“With our river ways and drinking water at stake, it, it’s an absolute necessity that the American public knows what is in these fracking chemicals,” said Rep. Markey.  “This report is the most comprehensive look yet at the composition of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and should help the industry, the government, and the American public push for a safer way to extract natural gas.”

“It is deeply disturbing to discover the content and quantity of toxic chemicals, like benzene and lead, being injected into the ground without the knowledge of the communities whose health could be affected,” said Rep. DeGette.  “Of particular concern to me is that we learned that over the four-year period studied, over one and a half million gallons of carcinogens were injected into the ground in Colorado. Many companies were also unable to even identify some of the chemicals they were using in their own activities, unfortunately underscoring that voluntary industry disclosure is not enough to ensure the economic benefits of natural gas production do not come at the cost of our families’ health.”

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We broke a story in this morning’s Gazette about three lawsuits in northern West Virginia that challenge a central practice of the region’s growing natural gas drilling industry: Dumping fracking waste on people’s property and then leaving potentially toxic pits behind when the drilling is done.

As we reported:

Larry and Jana Rine allege that Chesapeake unlawfully disposed of drilling wastes in the pit, then buried it and planned to leave it on a 210-acre property the Rines use as a part-time home and hunting camp at Silver Hill, east of New Martinsville.

Now, they allege, the company is using repair of a slip on its well pad as an excuse to haul away the wastes and potentially cover up what was really dumped into the pit.

Preliminary testing found the soil contained diesel fuel, benzene and a variety of other contaminants, court records show.

In a suit filed late last year, the Rines argued that it’s not “reasonably necessary” — the legal test for activities allowed by state natural gas laws — for Chesapeake to leave a buried waste dump in order to extract the gas it owns beneath the Rine property.

“These cases are just common sense and common law,” said Brian Glasser, a Charleston lawyer who represents the Rines and has filed two other, similar cases against Chesapeake. “You can’t bury a bunch of waste in somebody’s yard. It’s that simple.”

If successful, the lawsuits could force major changes in the way companies handle the huge amounts of wastes generated as they rush to drill for natural gas in the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation.

Here’s a copy of the legal brief that prompted U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp to issue a temporary restraining order against Chesapeake:

Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

We’ve talked before about whether the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas — especially when it comes from drilling into shale formations — has been understated in the rush to proclaim natural gas as a “clean” source of energy.

And now, there’s a new study out from researches at Cornell University which concludes:

The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.

The study is due out this week in the peer-reviewed journal Climate Change. But The Hill has a story already out about the paper, reporting:

The conclusion is explosive because natural gas enjoys broad political support – including White House backing – due to its domestic abundance and lower carbon dioxide emissions when burned than other fossil fuels.

Cornell Prof. Robert Howarth, however, argues that development of gas from shale rock formations produced through hydraulic fracturing – dubbed “fracking” – brings far more methane emissions than conventional gas production.

Enough, he argues, to negate the carbon advantage that gas has over coal and oil when they’re burned for energy, because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas.

But Howarth’s research was previously discussed in great detail in a story by ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten, available here.

UPDATED: The industry website “Energy in Depth” has published a response attacking the new study.

ProPublica: Abandoned wells pose water threat

Earlier this week, ProPublica continued its great reporting on oil and gas drilling’s environmental problems, with a piece about the potential threats to water supplies from abandoned wells.

The piece was headlined Deteriorating Oil and Gas Wells Threaten Drinking Water, Homes Across the Country, and was published in cooperation with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has launched a separate section of its website focused on oil and gas drilling issues. The story reports:

In the last 150 years, prospectors and energy companies have drilled as many as 12 million holes across the United States in search of oil and gas. Many of those holes were plugged after they dried up. But hundreds of thousands were simply abandoned and forgotten, often leaving no records of their existence.

Government reports have warned for decades that abandoned wells can provide pathways for oil, gas or brine-laden water to contaminate groundwater supplies or to travel up to the surface. Abandoned wells have polluted the drinking water source for Fort Knox, Ky. [2], and leaked oil into water wells in Ohio and Michigan. Similar problems have occurred in Texas, New York, Colorado and other states where drilling has occurred.

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Will Tomblin’s Marcellus Shale plan help?

The Gazette’s Phil Kabler reported this morning that Senate President Early Ray Tomblin, acting as governor, will not call a special session to try to work out legislation to regulate natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Phil explained:

Tomblin, D-Logan, said there are too many unresolved issues to try to wrap up in a brief special session — particularly in the case of Marcellus Shale drilling regulations.

He said has asked Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman to draft emergency in-house regulations for Marcellus operations for the short term.

“We can get by, until some compromise can be reached,” he said, referring to ongoing discussions to develop comprehensive Marcellus drilling regulations.

Tomblin said he will also ask legislators to increase funding for DEP in the budget bill to hire more inspectors for gas well sites. Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the budget conferees had not received any budget revisions from Tomblin’s office as of Tuesday evening.

Tomblin is ignoring the calls from environmental and citizen groups, who are campaigning for a special session, telling state officials:

We do not believe that the DEP should be issuing more new permits than it can review, inspect and enforce. Our drilling laws have not been updated in nearly 40 years. There are only 17 inspectors for 59,000 active gas wells. Also there are 6,000 inactive conventional wells out there now that need to be plugged before the well owners go out of business. We have had at least three major well fires and explosions in the past 18 months. The current system isn’t working! We need a special session to address environmental and other concerns related to Marcellus Shale and other gas well drilling.

Yesterday afternoon, I talked to WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman a bit about all of this, and it’s clear from what Randy says that there are limited things that his agency can do without new statutory authority from the Legislature.

For one thing, any new regulations would have to be issued as emergency rules or they would have to wait another year for lawmakers to consider and approve them in the 2011 session. And as Randy explained, such steps aren’t going to deal with all of the problems regulators have identified with the drilling boom:

What we would choose to put in an emergency ruled would be very limited and even what would do through regular rulemaking or under our existing authority is not going to capture everything.

In the short-term picture, Randy said he’s hoping that lawmakers will approve $2 million for his agency’s Office of Oil and Gas. That’s $1.25 million to make up for an existing budget shortfall and an additional $750,000 on top of that.

The additional money would allow DEP to hire 7 to 9 more oil and gas staffers, or about one-quarter of the additional inspectors, permit reviews and support staff that Randy had hoped to get this year to help DEP try to get a handle on permits and inspections.

As far as new rules or regulations, Randy pointed out that WVDEP has already done much of what it thought it could under existing regulatory authority.  More than a year ago, for example, WVDEP issued new guidance to the industry and last year the agency tried to promulgate new rules but was rebuffed by lawmakers.

In Phil’s story this morning, Dave McMahon of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization made these points about any efforts to deal with this through new WVDEP regulations without a new law:

The DEP can’t make them meet with surface owners before they survey. The DEP can’t stop them from drilling 200 feet from somebody’s porch.

Marcellus bill dead, so now what?

It’s all over but the finger-pointing as far as West Virginia lawmakers taking any steps to create new regulations to govern the Marcellus Shale natural gas boom.

Phil Kabler and Alison Knezevich had a roundup of the final night’s action — or lack of action — by the Legislature on the issue in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail here.

The Associated Press had this additional reporting on the bill’s demise and what might come next:

Speaker Rick Thompson defended his leadership’s work in a post-session interview with reporters. He said the issue was complex.

“It’s difficult to get all the different people interested in the result,” said Thompson, D-Wayne, “We worked very hard, but we ran out of time while trying to put all these different issues together between the Senate version and the House version.”

Thompson called for a special session devoted solely to Marcellus rules. Tomblin instead wants the Department of Environmental Protection to explore ways to oversee these drilling operations short of new legislation.

“I think DEP has the authority right now to go ahead and establish the regulations,” Tomblin said. “I think the secretary is willing to go forward.”

Tomblin, the Senate President Acting as Governor, has shown absolutely no interest to date in increasing the state’s oversight of natural gas drilling.  Recall that in his State of the State address in January, Tomblin promoted the industry boom, but made no mention at all of additional regulations.   And in February, when he formed a task force to promote spin-off industries, Tomblin touted what he said was the environmentally responsible manner in which the extraction of natural gas from Marcellus Shale occurs.

Also interesting were the comments of WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman, who told reporters after the bill’s death:

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said he is confident his agency will be able to regulate the drilling without changes in the law, at least for now.

“We don’t have a crisis in the short term,” he said. As far as the legislation, “I think it was a lot to expect to get so many issues and so many interests dealt with adequately in such a short period of time.”

Randy and his agency spent months trying to come up with legislative language to address their concerns about Marcellus drilling, and Randy was pretty clear before the session started about the need for such a bill:

What we have here is not a new twist on the same industry. In my view as a regulator, we have a whole new industry and we don’t have a regulatory program to deal with that industry.

Finally, does the notion pushed by some legislative leaders that they just didn’t have time to get a compromise bill together really make sense?

Remember that many of the same issues were at play last year, when the 2010 Legislature decided not to pass any new regulations on Marcellus drilling.  And WVDEP proposed new rules back in 2009, and lawmakers were having discussions about the matter then.

And many of the issues regarding the rights and needed protections for surface owners are hardly new … they’ve been discussed during many legislative sessions going back quite a few years.

Of course, lawmakers had no such problems finding the time or working out a compromise to pass legislation to give tax breaks for both drilling rigs and for potential new spin-off businesses for natural gas processing …

Will the Marcellus boom help the economy?

A few weeks ago, a West Virginia University study touted the economic benefits of the Marcellus gas drilling boom to our state. The study got a lot of attention from the West Virginia media.

But another brief report, released last month by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, doesn’t seem to have gotten nearly as much coverage. Perhaps that’s because the center’s preliminary findings  offers some cautions about whether a big drilling boom will be the economic savior that some political leaders would have us believe.

Among other things, the center points out that during the time period when the natural gas industry was on the rise in West Virginia (since 2002), the counties that have dominated gas production in our state have nonetheless experienced population loss, lower incomes, higher poverty and less economic diversity.

The report offers some important cautions about the gas boom:

— Annual production from a shale well declines by about 50 percent in the first year alone, and economically recoverable gas production is uncertain beyond five years.

— A boom in activity has a different impact than a slower ramp-up, providing an economic spike that is unlikely to be sustainable in the longer term.

— Expectations of wealth from development of this sort works against diversification and increases the cost of doing business in other industries.

— After the initial boom and construction phase, few jobs remain.

The report advises that state policies that mitigate negative effects on local communities and deal with environmental impacts can help.

And, it concludes that a mineral trust fund that uses revenue from increased severance taxes to promote economic diversity would be a positive step.

The Legislature is still considering bills concerning the Marcellus boom … so stay tuned.

Marcellus update: Senate bill advances

Here’s the latest from the AP:

Companies drilling in West Virginia’s Marcellus shale field would face steeper permit fees and some new rules under legislation advancing this session.

A unanimous Senate sent the House a proposal for these operations Wednesday. It focuses mostly on developers that employ a horizontal drilling method to tap this rich natural gas reserve.

The bill also adds rules overseeing the cracking of the shale with a high-volume mix of water and chemicals. But surface owners and environmental activists had sought stronger provisions.

The Senate bill would increase permit fees from $650 to $5,000. State regulators say they need $10,000 fees to hire needed inspectors.

The House had its own Marcellus proposal. It missed Wednesday’s procedural deadline for bills.