Shale Drilling an “Immanent Public Health Hazard”

Accidents bring calls to suspend shale drilling
Tuesday, June 08, 2010
By Don Hopey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Serious accidents at Marcellus shale natural gas drilling operations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia over the past five days have prompted sanctions against one Texas-based drilling company, support for tighter federal regulations and even calls for a moratorium on drilling.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger on Monday ordered EOG Resources Inc., formerly Enron Oil & Gas Co., to suspend all new drilling operations in the state until an independent investigation of a massive well “blowout” Thursday night near Penfield, Clearfield County, is completed.

“The Clearfield County incident presented a serious threat to life and property,” Mr. Hanger said. “We are working with the company to review its Pennsylvania drilling operations fully from beginning to end to ensure an incident of this nature does not happen again.”

Mr. Hanger said it was fortunate that the well did not ignite or explode. A preliminary DEP investigation has determined that the well’s blowout preventer failed, even though EOG records show the company inspected the device early Thursday morning.

The accident occurred when EOG’s operators lost control of the well after fracturing, or cracking, the Marcellus formation more than a mile underground to release the natural gas locked in the shale. High pressure pushed the gas and “frack fluid” laced with toxic chemicals out of the well for 16 hours, spraying more than 35,000 gallons and maybe as many as 1 million gallons 75 feet into the air.

The DEP order prohibits EOG from drilling new wells for seven days, starting fracking activities for 14 days and initiating post-fracking operations for 30 days throughout the state. The investigation could extend those operational suspensions and result in additional fines or enforcement actions against the company. The order, which EOG agreed to, affects 50 drilled but incomplete wells in the state but not its 265 active wells.

EOG issued a press release in which Gary Smith, EOG vice president and general manager in Pittsburgh, said he “regrets the incident” and the company is cooperating with state investigators and conducting its own investigation.

Monday afternoon, EOG officials conducted a full briefing on the incident for members of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry advocacy group.

“It’s important that the whole industry understands and can learn from those kinds of experiences and share what worked in emergency responses,” said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, who noted that the “blowout” in Clearfield County was the first in the Marcellus shale formation and such accidents are extremely rare.

But Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Rep. Joe Sestak on Monday called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to increase its monitoring and oversight of Marcellus shale development, saying in a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson that adequate regulations are not in place to protect the public and water resources.

Until such regulations are in place, all Marcellus shale drilling operations should be halted because they pose an “immanent public health hazard,” said Conrad Dan Volz, assistant professor for Environmental & Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and director of the school’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.

Dr. Volz said the Clearfield “blowout” and a drilling rig explosion near Moundsville, W.Va., Monday that burned and injured seven drilling workers in a suspected methane gas explosion on a Chief Oil & Gas well is evidence that a moratorium is necessary to allow a thorough assessment of drilling operations and the risks they pose.

“This is a public health issue, especially for planned drilling in populated areas and around schools,” he said. “It’s an occupational health problem, an environmental health problem and an emergency preparedness problem that no one has foreseen.”

But Ms. Klaber said that new federal regulation would be redundant to state laws, and a moratorium on drilling would drive up retail gas prices and deprive property owners of financial benefits from leasing gas drilling rights.

“These incidents occurred from two very different sets of circumstances,” she said. “Having them happen so close together makes us look harder at the broader lessons learned and we are doing that right now.”

The Marcellus shale formation underlies three-quarters of Pennsylvania and parts of New York, Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia, a total of 95,000 square miles, and contains as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas — enough to supply the nation’s gas demands for 10 to 15 years.

In Pennsylvania alone, approximately 2,500 Marcellus shale gas well drilling permits were issued from 2007 through 2009 by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which projects another 5,000 permits will be issued this year.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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