Pennsylvania Violations: With Every New Oil & Gas Well Drilled There Are No Guarantees

Home / TRIPLE DIVIDE / Pennsylvania Violations: With Every New Oil & Gas Well Drilled There Are No Guarantees

A recycling pond in state Game Land 59 of Potter County where Pennsylvania General Energy received multiple violations. photo: J. B. Pribanic

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Oil and Gas Reporting Website,  oil and gas operators in the state have amassed 20,942 violations in the past decade, 3,393 of them issued for Marcellus Shale oil and gas wells.

From 2001-2011 the number of new wells drilled totals 33,083 for the state — 4,982 of them are Marcellus wells, with the first two Marcellus wells drilled in 2003.

Pennsylvania’s shale gas ‘boom’ started in 2008 with a surge in Marcellus drilling activity, yet the amount of Marcellus wells incurring violations accounts for only 22.2% of all oil and gas violations in the state between 2008-2011, according to DEP’s data:

Focus on Marcellus detracts from scope of drilling violations

Despite the focus by environmental groups, citizens, media and legislators on the process of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’, used to blast apart shale to extract fossil fuel minerals from thousands of feet below the earth’s surface, most of the negative impacts resulting from this extraction occurred before the fracking begins.

The Public Herald has conducted file reviews at the North Central Regional Office of DEP over the past 18 months. These file reviews have revealed that many problems begin before a hole is even started for a new Marcellus well, with erosion and sedimentation violations ranking at the top of the list for immediate problems at a well.

Announced in a February 9, 2012  press release, PA DEP fined one of the biggest natural gas companies in the U.S., Chesapeake Energy, $215,000 for a March 2011 erosion violation that impacted a public water supply and High Quality stream in the borough of Galeton in Potter County. Chesapeake was constructing its drilling site above the water supply at the time but had not begun digging the well. The violations found erosion controls constructed by Chesapeake were not sufficient to keep the well site stabilized.

Recurring Types of Violations

Erosion and sediment control are recurring violations among drilling operators in the Commonwealth, followed by the failure to prevent pollution and “improper casing” or failure to protect fresh groundwater. Cemented well casings are required by the state and are meant to create a protective barrier between drilling constituents and underground fresh water supplies, but sometimes lead to faulty wells.

On a February 22, 2012, PA DEP announced it had fined Catalyst Energy $185,000 for violations including water contamination at over a dozen homes, erosion, and spills associated with Catalyst’s non-Marcellus oil and gas well operations in three counties.

Despite these recurrences, not all violations threaten the environment or human health. Some are considered by DEP as “administrative” and many violations do not require enforcement if they are remedied in a timely fashion.

In a recent study, the environmental advocacy law-group PennEnvironment found that over 70% of Marcellus violations between 2008-2011 “likely posed a direct threat to the environment.”

A Decade of Drilling, Before and Including Marcellus

To get a better understanding of oil and gas drilling and violations in Pennsylvania, Public Herald looked at DEP’s data on drilling over the last decade in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some findings of PH’s examination include:

    • The number of violations more than doubled from 2008-2009 at the same time the total number of all oil and gas wells drilled per year decreased by 1,616;
    • The total number of oil and gas violations since 2010 increases with the increase in Marcellus wells, however…
    • The number of Marcellus violations has decreased since 2010, even though the total number of violations per year spiked in 2010 to the highest it’s ever been since 2001.

Industry Group Claims Decrease in Marcellus Violations Due to Increased Diligence

The Marcellus natural gas industry group, Energy In Depth, chastised PennEnvironment’s study for not telling the whole story with regard to Marcellus violations between 2008 and 2011, specifically for failing to mention a decrease in Marcellus violations per well since 2010.

While PennEnvironment failed to report violation data per well, Energy In Depth inconclusively used DEP data for its own purposes, stating that the decrease in Marcellus violations “clearly highlights the industry-wide commitment to responsible operation and environmental success.”

However, there are other factors that could have contributed to the decrease in Marcellus violations since 2010. Such factors include the change in administration (2010 was a successful campaign year for Governor Tom Corbett, who took office in 2011 and whose campaign received over $1.6 million from the oil and gas industry), a decrease in DEP funding, or changes in DEP procedure (early in 2011 DEP violation enforcements were re-routed through the capitol office for approval until the new policy was rescinded after a leaked memo).

Compliance: Can Drilling Be Done Without Repeated Harm? 

In PennEnvironment’s aforementioned study, the group states “Marcellus Shale gas drilling companies are either unable or unwilling to comply with basic environmental laws that have been put in place to protect the health and environment of Pennsylvanians.” The study does not address whether non-Marcellus companies are able or willing to comply.

According to data from the past three years of drilling in Pennsylvania, it is clear that non-Marcellus wells are the biggest violators. Between 2008-2011 there were 11,803 total violations, of which 3,359 were Marcellus.

In the last decade, the oil and gas industry has amassed over 20,942 violations and 33,083 new wells, as reported by DEP. At current rates (2,046 new Marcellus wells in 2011) nearly 40,000 new Marcellus wells alone could be drilled from 2012-2030. For all oil and gas wells, the number is closer to 60,000 new wells by 2030 at current rates. Add that to DEP’s estimated 325,000 abandoned wells drilled in the state since the 1800’s that are still in need of plugging.

With every new well drilled there are no guarantees. That’s why PA regulators and the DEP are needed — to set standards and gather information in order to assess hazards, curtail damages, and enforce best practices. Though DEP has increased its staff in recent years to accomodate the accelerated rate of Marcellus drilling, it does not keep track of the occurrence rates or totals for specific types of violations. The lack of categorical data is an ever present challenge to anyone reporting on Marcellus.

DEP conclusions for natural gas pollution cases from Marcellus, particularly consent agreements with Cabot Oil & Gas and Chesapeake Energy, have recently been questioned by the EPA and ATSDR (a branch of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention). In the event the DEP falls short on stewardship, the public or person is left to defend their rights as we’ve seen in the case of Dimock, Pa.

Weighing Costs and Benefits

On the homepage of DEP’s website, the mission statement ends with “promote advanced energy technology and help the commonwealth’s citizens prevent pollution and comply with Pennslyvania’s environmental regulations.” In order to do this, the benefits of increased drilling – jobs, profits, cheaper energy prices, and “energy independence” – ought to be measured against all costs of extracting, refining, storing, and transporting drilled fossil fuels both in the short and long term.

Since Pennsylvania has a long history of oil and gas extraction, a wealth of information already exists to demonstrate the long-term gains and losses incurred by the state, the public, and the environment. However, whether or not DEP uses data collected over the course of the industry’s history to the present day in order to assess efficiency and analyze results over time is unclear. Even more unclear is how any such analyses may be accessed by the public or used by the department to ensure its mission “to protect and promote” is being attained.

The first week of 2012, Public Herald made a request to DEP for total numbers of methane migration and groundwater contamination cases before and since 2008. It was determined that “[t]here is no way of tracking information like that through E-facts which is what the [Oil and Gas] program uses to keep track of their reports,” wrote DEP clerk Olivia Harris in response to a file review request for the information. Harris suggested doing file reviews and requesting gas migration files at each regional office, of which there are six in the state. However, this does not guarantee an accurate picture of all cases in the state, as some files may be confidential, according to file clerks at the North Central Regional Office. The DEP did not respond to any further requests for this report.

The DEP exercises  its authority to issue hefty monetary fines to violators of state law, but there are no comprehensive public reports or breakdowns of how fines are used to address violations, what the environmental and economic costs are for remediation or prevention from harm, and no readily available categorical analysis of trends such as water contamination created by the oil and gas industry across the state.