Sunday Times review of DEP drilling records reveals water damage, murky testing methods – News – The Times-Tribune

Sunday Times review of DEP drilling records reveals water damage, murky testing methods – News – The Times-Tribune.

First of two parts

State environmental regulators determined that oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses between 2008 and the fall of 2012, according to a cache of nearly 1,000 letters and enforcement orders written by Department of Environmental Protection officials and obtained by The Sunday Times.

The determination letters are sent to water supply owners who ask state inspectors to investigate whether oil and gas drilling activities have polluted or diminished the flow of water to their wells.

Interactive Map:

Inspectors declared the vast majority of complaints – 77 percent of 969 records – unfounded, lacking enough evidence to tie them definitively to drilling or caused by a different source than oil and gas exploration, like legacy pollution, natural conditions or mining.

One in six investigations across the roughly five-year period – 17 percent of the records – found that oil and gas activity disrupted water supplies either temporarily or seriously enough to require companies to replace the spoiled source.

The letters confirming contamination or water loss from drilling and the orders that require companies to fix the damage provide what is likely the best official count of the industry’s impact on individual water supplies in Pennsylvania because the state does not track the disruptions.

The Sunday Times requested the records in late 2011, and received access to them late last year after a state appeals court ruled that the DEP had to release the documents regardless of whether it was hard for the agency to find them in its files.

While the records compiled by the newspaper offer a more complete tally of the number of affected properties than was previously available, the count is not exhaustive:

Shale Gas Review: Efforts to test Marcellus in upstate NY produces leaky well Carrizo crews on site to fix casing problem in Owego

Shale Gas Review: Efforts to test Marcellus in upstate NY produces leaky well Carrizo crews on site to fix casing problem in Owego.

PA DEP Determination Letters – damascus citizens for sustainability

PA DEP Determination Letters – damascus citizens for sustainability.

“The Department investigation indicates that gas well drilling has impacted your water supply.”

Despite the oft-repeated gas industry canard that there are no confirmed cases of fracking contaminating water supplies, the following Determination Letters from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection clearly state  that “gas well drilling” has contaminated wells in Bradford County, in municipalities such as Granville, Tuscarora, Terry, Orwell, Wilmot and Monroe Townships, and in Alba Boro.

The letters posted so far were obtained by Right to Know requests to the PA DEP filed by Vera Scroggins of “Citizens for Clean Water” located in Susquehanna County.

Across Pa., Abandoned Wells Litter The Land : NPR

Across Pa., Abandoned Wells Litter The Land : NPR.

Study: Airborne methane plume found near Bradford County gas migration site – News – The Times-Tribune

Study: Airborne methane plume found near Bradford County gas migration site – News – The Times-Tribune.

Methane Leakage from Shale Gas Drilling: An Update

Methane Leakage from Shale Gas Drilling: An Update.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Julian Silk

A recent New York Times article by Andrew Revkin, in his “Dot Earth” column, surveyed the controversy over methane gas leakage from shale gas drilling.  He has updated his original article in “A Fresh Scientific Defense of the Merits of Moving from Coal to Shale Gas”, February 29, 2012.  The Journal of Geophysical Research article cited is by Gabrielle Pétron et al, “Hydrocarbon emissions characterization in the Colorado Front Range: A pilot study”.  A valuable description of the study is at  The latest argument from Howarth et al is “Venting and leaking of methane from shale gas development: response to Cathles et al., Climatic Change, 01 February 2012.

The issue will become important in the U.S. shortly, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is scheduled to release regulations concerning methane leakage for shale gas drilling on April 3rd.  EC/R Inc., an environmental consulting firm (see, will be an important partner in the development of the regulations.

The following is an attempt to update the controversy and to provide some additional sources on it.  Both Mr. Howarth and Mr. Cathles have been very helpful as well.  It is not possible to make a definitive judgment about who is right.  Several of the comments below will be seen to disagree with Mr. Howarth, but he deserves great credit for bringing the problem to public attention.

Duke University and Resources for the Future (RFF) are both attempting to quantify the problem.  See especially Stephen Osborn et al, “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing”, at and  The Proceedings of the National Academy have a number of articles on gas leakage, the latest being Rebecca Rooney et al, “Oil sands mining and reclamation cause massive loss of peatland and stored carbon”, which is online at

Certain items stand out immediately upon inspection.  On Mr. Howarth’s web site, as of this writing, there are links to FLIR footage of Marcellus drilling.  (FLIR is a company that makes thermal imaging cameras that are widely used to view gas leaks, including those of sulfur hexafluoride, SF6, the most potent greenhouse gas, from substations.)  The Marcellus videos do show venting occurs, in contrast to a claim that they do not, and that the gas is buoyant.  The videos are very careful to make it clear to the reader that they are not trying to make quantitative claims.  But a useful counterpoint should be provided by FLIR videos of gas flaring.  It is not necessary to travel to Nigeria to get such videos.  There is ongoing gas flaring in the Bakken Shale; for this, see flaring in North Dakota, Russia (which seems to be the worst offender), Africa and the Middle East.   EIA has a report on North Dakota flaring as well in its “Today in Energy” for November 23, 2011.

This is a symptom of what may be much more general: the impact of stranded gas on methane leakage.  It is possible that in the areas where natural gas is not near pipelines or gas plants is leaked, since the costs of operation and maintenance necessary to minimize the leaks are not covered by the additional revenues gained.  If correct, this hypothesis would imply leakage would be less because of economic factors, all else equal, in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations than for those in the American west, and this can be tested.  In the U.S., leasing and legal terms vary from formation to formation.  Maciej Rygiel suggests that Polish shale, seemingly one of the world’s richest shale gas prospects, has high percentage clay content, and that the clay content has been a factor in delaying drilling.  Although the fracturing may be more expensive as a result, so that there is a financial difference in exploiting fields, there is no leakage differential.

It could also be thought the issue could be decided by insurance payments, that leakage of the magnitude claimed by Howarth et al could be identified as an insurance risk and detected by high insurance payments or by the assumption of high risks of the insurer for the shale gas developer.  An industry source, who asked not to be named, stated in response, that “In reality, venting gas in substantial quantities on a well site is a safety risk first and foremost, and venting the sort of volumes assumed by Howarth’s group wouldn’t be insurable at any price except under very specific circumstances”.  The source does not dispute that venting does take place, and agrees that human factors are crucial in what amount is vented, but does argue that the magnitudes assumed would be dangerous and uneconomic.  It would thus be desirable for those supporting the Howarth et al findings to explain how insurers could profitably operate with shale gas developers under those circumstances.

Howarth et al do explicitly discuss the economics of gas capture.  A partial quotation of this argument is merited:  “According to EPA (2011b), the break-even price at which the cost of capturing the gas equals the market value of the captured gas is slightly under $4 per thousand cubic feet … There is also substantial uncertainty in the cost of capturing the gas.  At least for low-energy wells, a BP presentation put the cost of ‘green’ cleanouts as 30% higher than for normal well completions (Smith 2008).  The value of the captured gas would roughly pay for the process, according to BP, at the price of gas as of 2008, or approximately $6.50 per thousand cubic feet (EIA 2011a)”.  The problem with this argument is that it does not distinguish between “wet” shale gas fields (which contain natural gas liquids) and dry fields which don’t.  Oil prices would seem to be the primary determinant for wet field development, and the developers will capture the gas if required by regulation and if oil prices are high enough.

There is also the issue of how much reduced emissions completion (REC) equipment is actually being used.  On this see the memorandum by Harvey Consulting (pages 18-27 of 185) in the submission by Center for Biological Diversity et al at  This is a dispute whether 92% of well completions are controlled by REC equipment are controlled with REC equipment, as stated by the American Natural Gas Association, vs. EPA’s estimate of 15%.  Harvey argues that EPA’s estimate is on the conservative end of the spectrum, but appears to argue that it is the right order of magnitude.

Harvey is surely right in its assessment, and it would be desirable to have accurate national data on this point.  RECs are also discussed in  But these will depend on the use of enclosed tanks instead of lined pits (which are becoming more common in any case), and will greatly be speeded by regulation.

Shale gas developers have already lost the battle for minimal regulation.  Dana Sasarean et al., MSCI ESG Research, “Shale Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing in the US: Opportunity or Underestimated Risk”, October 2011, at makes this brutally clear, with detailed examination of performance by company.  The immediate alternative to shale gas development is not high taxes – these are politically infeasible, especially in the U.S. but probably elsewhere as well – but a slowdown in the conversion of coal generation to natural gas.  This would increase the price of coal with low methane emissions when mined, including possibly Powder River Basin and South American and Asian coals.  In the presence of these possibly unpalatable alternatives, for both sides, there is room for a deal.

Monday, April 2nd, 2012, by admin and is filed under “Natural Gas “. You can leave a response here, or send a Trackback from your own site.

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As Shell Works To Stop Methane, Neighboring Farmer Worries About His Cows | StateImpact Pennsylvania

As Shell Works To Stop Methane, Neighboring Farmer Worries About His Cows | StateImpact Pennsylvania.

Abandoned wells

Yesterday on the NPR station WSKG broadcast of Living on Earth ( there was a segment on locating abandoned oil/gas wells in PA – very interesting and relevant.

Some excerpts:

DOE Looks for Orphan Wells

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. For more than 150 years prospectors in the United States have drilled countless holes in the ground in search of oil and gas. Most of the resulting wells were sealed once they became unprofitable. But improperly sealed ones can lead to explosions and other hazards.
With the gas rush now underway in the Marcellus Shale in the Eastern U.S., the federal Department of Energy has made the search for so-called “orphan wells” a high priority.

….The helicopter has special equipment mounted on long, white poles on either side. At the end of each pole is a white cylinder pointed at the ground. Inside, these canisters are essentially advanced metal detectors. They can pick up cars, natural metals like gold, or the metal casings found in abandoned oil and gas wells.

….An abandoned well, if it’s not properly plugged, it provides a conduit for gases to come to the surface. These gases could be, of course, methane, natural gas, or something like radon.

….The first natural gas well in Pennsylvania was drilled in 1859. But the industry wasn’t regulated until 1956. That left almost a century’s worth of wells drilled, with little or no records of where they were located. It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 of these so-called “orphan wells” sitting in Pennsylvania.

.One problem with looking for wells, Carter says, is a lot of the metal casings used to detect these wells are gone. 
 (The program does not explain how these wells are located, as the sensing system is based on magnetism detecting the steel casing.)
…..Our story on orphaned wells comes to us from the radio show The Allegheny Front.
From the DEC’s revised DSGEIS
Preliminary Revised Draft SGEIS 2011, Page 7-59
To ensure that abandoned wells do not provide a conduit for contamination of fresh water
aquifers, the Department proposes to require that the operator consult the Division’s oil and gas
database as well as property owners and tenants in the proposed spacing unit to determine
whether any abandoned wells are present.  If (1) the operator has property access rights, (2) the
well is accessible and (3) it is reasonable to believe based on available records and history of
drilling in the area that the well’s total depth may be as deep or deeper than the target formation
for high-volume hydraulic fracturing, then the Department would require the operator to enter
and evaluate the well, and properly plug it prior to high-volume hydraulic fracturing if the
evaluation shows the well is open to the target formation or is otherwise an immediate threat to
the environment.  If any abandoned well is under the operator’s control as owner or lessee of the
pertinent mineral rights, then the operator is required to comply with the Department’s existing
regulations regarding shut-in or temporary abandonment if good cause exists to leave the well
unplugged.  This would require a demonstration that the well is in satisfactory condition to not
pose a threat to the environment, including during nearby high-volume hydraulic fracturing, and
a demonstrated intent to complete and/or produce the well within the time frames provided by
existing regulations.
A criticism of the of this section is that this “proposal” could easily miss wells which have long since been abandoned, especially those from which the casing was removed for scrap steel.  From the DEC’s website:

Long Abandoned Wells Predate Strict Rules

DEC has a strict environmental regulatory program for oil and gas wells drilled in New York. New York has had an active oil and gas industry since the 1880’s and DEC estimates that more than 75,000 oil and gas wells have been drilled in the state. Most of these wells existed prior to the establishment of New York’s regulatory program in 1963 that ensures the proper plugging of wells. DEC has identified about 4,800 unplugged, abandoned oil and gas wells in New York for which no known owner can be located. It estimates that at least as many more unplugged and abandoned wells exist that are yet to be discovered. Many of the older wells were abandoned by their owners when low production and/or low prices made it unprofitable for them to continue production.
I expect that this airborne scanning technology will be cited by the DEC to deflect some of the criticism about undocumented wells.
Jim Weiss
1. They didn’t talk about cost to find/time to find
2. They didn’t talk about cost to plug
3. They didn’t talk about alternative technologies to find (there is ALWAYS som other way(s)
4. They didn’t talk about old abandoned water wells – another contamination vector
5. Sigh,  S

New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years – ProPublica

New Study Predicts Frack Fluids Can Migrate to Aquifers Within Years – ProPublica.

Freedom, NY, Natural Gas Release: Homes Evacuated, Water Wells Polluted – YouTube

Freedom, NY, Natural Gas Release: Homes Evacuated, Water Wells Polluted – YouTube.