Toxic Spill in Tioga County: A Note to Rep. Jim Christiana, Who Argues That It Never Happens

PA ‘Fracking’ Blowout Spews Marcellus Shale Fluid onto State Forest Lands

Talisman Energy may face heavy penalties

Photo: Typical PA Gas Drilling Site

By G. Jeffrey Aaron

Jan25, 2011- Talisman Energy has resumed its Marcellus drilling operations in Pennsylvania, a week after one of the company’s gas wells experienced a blowout that caused an uncontrolled discharge of sand and fracking fluids onto state forest lands in Tioga County.

As a result of the incident, Talisman shut down all of its hydraulic fracturing operations in North America while it conducted an internal investigation into the cause of the Jan. 17 blowout. Those operations have since resumed, with Talisman’s Pennsylvania drilling program being the last to be brought back online.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has requested Talisman provide answers to nine questions related to the blowout as part of its investigation into the incident. The investigation could result in civil penalties levied against Talisman.

The well where the blowout occurred is on Pennsylvania State Forest lands in Ward Township, about nine miles southeast of Mansfield.

"There is certainly the possibility of a civil penalty that would be determined at a later time," DEP spokesman Daniel Spadoni said. "But we need to have the investigation concluded to our satisfaction before the civil penalties would be addressed."

Talisman, based in Calgary, Alberta has five days from receipt of letter, called a notice of violation, to submit the information requested by the DEP. The letter was dated Monday.

Among other items, the DEP wants Talisman to submit a sampling plan for the site, information on any fluids released during the blowout, an analysis of the incident’s cause, changes in all of the company’s Marcellus operations as a result of the incident and when those changes will be implemented.

DEP is also asking why it was notified shortly after 1:30 p.m. Jan. 17 when the incident began a little after noon.

"This was a serious incident that could have caused significant environmental harm had it not been brought under control," DEP North-central Regional Director Nels Taber said in a statement. "DEP is conducting a thorough investigation to determine why this incident occurred."

Talisman began having problems controlling the well in the early afternoon of Jan. 17. According to initial reports, a needle valve on a casing wing valve failed, which resulted in loss of well control.

By the time DEP was notified of the incident by a Talisman representative, CUDD Well Control services, based in Houston with a local office in Canton, Pa., was on the scene.

During the blowout, fracking fluids and sand discharged from the well into the air. It does not appear that any significant amount of natural gas was released, the DEP said. There was no fire, no explosion and no injuries. The well was successfully shut down around 3:45 p.m. that day.

Fracking involves blasting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water and sand into the well to break up dense shale more than a mile underground and release the gas trapped inside. Some of the water returns to the surface as a brine laden with dissolved solids such as sulfates and chlorides, as well as metals.

Inspections conducted last week by DEP staff at the site verified that the fluids had been contained to the lined well pad. The fluids were cleaned up by a contractor and further sampling will be conducted to determine if any contaminated soil needs to be removed.

Staffers from Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas Program also collected soil samples last week from beneath the well pad liner. Those test results have not yet been received.

Spadoni said the DEP has been investigating the incident since the day it happened, and includes interviews with Talisman representatives and the taking of soil samples. So far, the investigation has identified three violations. They are:

* The potential pollution of fresh water streams near the well site, which carries a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each day the violation continues.

* Releasing fracking fluids onto the ground, a violation of Pennsylvania’s Solid Waste Management Act that carries a civil penalty of $25,000 per day.

* Failing to contain hydraulic fracturing fluids, a violation of DEP’s Oil and Gas Act that is punishable by a civil penalty of up to $25,000 and $1,000 for each day of continued violation.

In a prepared statement, Talisman said it has modified the design of the failed component to prevent reoccurrences at other Marcellus Shale well sites. The company also said the incident was "regrettable" and it will apply what’s been learned to the "continuous improvement of our well site operations."

Talisman budgeted close to $1 billion to develop its holdings in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale play last year. The number of producing wells has dramatically risen from 53 wells in 2009 to 150 wells at the end of last year. The company ended 2010 with a production volume of 315 million cubic feet of natural gas per day.

While Talisman’s drilling program makes it one of Pennsylvania’s most active natural gas exploration and drilling companies, it is also one of the state’s most often cited for violations.

Last year, the DEP conducted 187 inspections of Talisman’s Marcellus Shale well sites, finding 151 violations on 91 of those inspections. Only Chief Oil & Gas, based in Dallas, Texas, with a field office in Williamsport, Pa. had more violations in 2010.

For 2011, Talisman has budgeted $800 million for its Marcellus program and plans to reduce the number of drilling rigs from 12 to nine this year. The company expects to drill 100 Marcellus wells this year and looks to raise its production average to between 350-400 million cubic feet per day.

The last blowout reported in Pennsylvania by the DEP was in June, when an EOG Resources Inc. well went out of control for 16 hours and sent polluted drilling water into a couple of nearby creeks.

A state consultant’s investigation found that EOG did not use a proper backup pressure-control system and had taken similar safety shortcuts on at least some of its other wells in Pennsylvania.

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