Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sunday Times review of DEP drilling records reveals water damage, murky testing methods

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.
View 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:
- DEP tracks oil and gas-related disruptions to water supplies based on broad incidents, each of which might affect one or many water supplies, making comparisons between the totals difficult. A case of gas migrating into Dimock Twp. drinking water, for example, is considered one incident by DEP even though the state determined it affected 18 water wells used by 19 families. DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said the agency compiles "some information" on the number of affected water wells and springs, but DEP's statistics on impacted water supplies differ from the numbers documented in the letters and orders released to The Sunday Times. Between 2010 and 2012, DEP counted 103 impacted water supplies - six more than were documented for those years in the records released to the newspaper.
- DEP repeatedly argued in court filings during the open records case that it does not count how many determination letters it issues, track where they are kept in its files or maintain its records in a way that would allow a comprehensive search for the letters, so there is no way to assess the completeness of the released documents.
- Before a 2011 regulatory update, solutions worked out privately between homeowners and drillers were not required to be reported to the department. The Sunday Times requested the notices of potential water contamination that now have to be passed on to DEP by drilling companies that receive them from residents, but the request was denied by DEP and the state's Office of Open Records because the documents are considered part of protected investigations.
- The conclusions described in the determination letters are seldom absolute because substances read as signals of drilling-related contamination are also routine signs of other man-made or natural influences.
The article goes on to say:
Transparency questioned
The department's water testing and reporting protocols have come under scrutiny in recent months as environmental activists and homeowners whose drilling-related complaints were dismissed have come to doubt the determinations' accuracy and value.
DEP recently changed its policy for issuing water contamination notices to require administrators in Harrisburg to approve them before they are sent out from the regional field offices that conduct the investigations. The state's laboratory technical director, deposed when a resident appealed the DEP's conclusion that drilling activities had not polluted his water supply, acknowledged that DEP reviews and reports back to homeowners only those contaminants it considers indicative of drilling-related contamination, not all of the contaminants that might surface in its water tests - a common practice for tailoring laboratory analysis but one that spurred critics to question the thoroughness and transparency of DEP's investigations.
In January, state Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale announced his office is conducting a performance audit of the DEP's water testing program to "determine the adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities" between 2009 and 2012.
Debate over the safety of oil and gas extraction - especially the combined tools of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing used in pursuit of fuel from unconventional sources like the Marcellus Shale - is often characterized as an argument between activists who exaggerate claims of damage and industry public relations teams who minimize them.
But the determination letters released by the state reveal a widespread suspicion among water supply owners - farmers and summer residents, school board members and mini-mart operators, churches and a Wyoming County municipal water authority - that when their water seems soured, gas drilling operations might be to blame.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Marcellus shale testing to start in Perry Township, PA
By Rick Bruni Jr.
Published: Thursday, May 23, 2013, 12:26 a.m.Updated: Thursday, May 23, 2013 

     From spooked cattle to losing underground water, Fayette County residents vented their anxieties Wednesday to a pair of natural gas industry representatives at the Perry Township Volunteer Fire Hall.
     The concerns are over seismic testing which uses planted explosives and vibrating trucks to create sound waves that measure Marcellus shale at least 9,000 feet below the surface.
     The testing will be conducted in the township and vicinity within the next three weeks.Seismic testing produces underground sound waves to map areas of shale suitable for hydraulic fracturing that, in turn, allows extraction of natural gas and other substances.
The article goes on to say:
     the bulk of testing would begin within the next 21 to 28 days and residents should prepare for heavy helicopter traffic. Helicopters are used to airlift equipment onto test sites.
      Canadian company CGG Veritas will then perform the actual geological testing, White said, to pinpoint where Chevron would conduct drilling and fracking.
     “We are not going to cause damage. That is not in anyone's best interest,” Zimmerman said. “But if, in some case something does happen, we will make sure you are made right. If it is damage that is caused by our operations, we will work with you to make it right.”
     However, several cynical residents repeatedly blasted White, stressing concerns that ranged from property rights, to cattle getting spooked by explosions and/or helicopters, to structural damage in their homes.
Ron and Rosemary Matway, who operate a cattle farm on French Island Road in Perryopolis, are fearful for their water supply. Ron Matway said he can hear nearby drilling while sitting inside his home.
     “My water, my house, and the road that goes through our property to another bunch of houses,” Ron Matway said when asked what his specific concerns were. “They're using up all our resources way too fast. I don't want to see your kids or our grandkids have to have it hard.”His wife was more troubled over potential fracking by Chevron, adding McDonald stands to profit from $30,000 to $60,000 per parcel of land.
     “We have well water, springs for the cattle, and there have been a lot of problems on other farms,” Rosemary Matway said. “In Washington County, how many cattle died because their pond was contaminated, and nobody was held accountable. Why didn't the DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) do anything? Money talks.”

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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Aftermath of a Drilling Boom: Wyoming stuck with abandoned gas wells

This coal-bed methane gas well in the Powder River Basin leaked water, which caused some erosion. The facility was abandoned by its operator, and the state later plugged the well and reclaimed the area.
This coal-bed methane gas well in the Powder River Basin leaked water, which caused some erosion. The facility was abandoned by its operator, and the state later plugged the well and reclaimed the area. (Courtesy of Jill Morrison — click to view)
WyoFile  By Dustin Bleizeffer
— May 21, 2013
The Powder River Basin coal-bed methane gas industry that drilled at a pace of 2,500 wells annually for a decade has been in sharp decline in recent years. Operators have mostly stopped drilling and are now idling thousands of wells, and perhaps thousands more have been abandoned —  “orphaned” — by operators struggling financially.
Last week, Wyoming lawmakers heard testimony that the number of orphaned wells likely exceeds 1,200 — and more will be added to the list of liabilities to the state.
The Powder River sometimes runs dry in this arid region of northeast Wyoming. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to view)
The Powder River sometimes runs dry in this arid region of northeast Wyoming, yet only a small portion of groundwater associated with coal-bed methane gas development was put to beneficial use. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile — click to view)
State officials say they’re having difficulty measuring the exact scope of the problem due to complex record-keeping among multiple agencies. Ryan Lance, director of the Office of State Lands and Investments, told WyoFile that his staff is working through stacks of files to try to determine which operators owe money, and how much.
In some cases, the orphaned wells devalue ranch properties, and in other cases they complicate a promise that the industry made at the onset of the play: that some wells would be transferred to ranchers for use in watering livestock on the arid high plains.
Coal strata are often aquifers in the region. In some areas, the production of coal-bed methane gas has substantially drained the coal aquifer because operators had to pump large volumes of water from the coal to get the methane gas also contained there to flow to the surface. By 2010, the industry had pumped 783,092 acre feet of water from the coals, according to the Wyoming State Geological Survey. That’s enough water to fill Lake DeSmet three times.
Only a small percentage of that water was put to beneficial use.
“There’s concern from land and mineral owners who are not getting surface use and damage payments anymore. … Money is spent on attorneys trying to recoup surface use payments,” as well as royalties, said Jill Morrison of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowner advocacy group based in Sheridan.
Morrison testified before the Joint Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee last week in Gillette.
Committee member Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne) said that for years he and others on the committee have heard warnings about the potential for orphaned wells and unpaid bills in the coal-bed methane gas play, “and now it is happening.”
While some operators, such as Anadarko Petroleum Corp., are financially sound enough to plug wells that are no longer commercial, a handful of smaller operators flirt with bankruptcy and fail to conduct required maintenance on the wells, creating potential hazards to human health and the environment. Some operators have simply walked away from their coal-bed methane properties in the basin.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Friday is the proverbial “take out the trash day” for the release of bad news among public relations practitioners and this last Friday was no different. 
In that vein, yesterday the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a conditional approval for the second-ever liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminal. 
LNG is the super-chilled final product of gas obtained—predominantly in today’s context—via the controversial hydraulic fracturing process that is taking place throughout many states in the U.S. Fracked gas is shipped from the domestic shale basins via pipelines to various coastal LNG terminals, and then sent on LNG tankers to the global market.
The name of the terminal: Freeport LNG.
Freeport LNG is 50 percent owned by ConocoPhillips and located in Freeport, TX, an hour car ride south of Houston. The export facility is the second one approved by the DOE, with the first one—Sabine Pass terminal, owned by Cheniere and located in Sabine Pass, LA—approved in May 2011
DOE gave its rubber stamp of approval to Freeport LNG to export up to 1.4 billion cubic feet of LNG per day from its terminal. 
The announcement comes in the aftermath of an April DeSmogBlog investigation revealing that recently confirmed Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz—a former member of the Board of Directors of ICF International—has a binder full of conflicts of interest in any decision the DOE makes to export the U.S. shale gas bounty.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Radioactive fracking debris triggers worries at dump sites 

By Timothy Puko 

Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013, 9:00 p.m.Updated 20 hours ago 

When a garbage truck from a shale gas well set off radiation detectors at a South Huntingdon landfill on April 19, it drew attention from township officials.
But they aren't the only ones watching what's become a growing issue all over Pennsylvania. The number of garbage trucks setting off radiation monitors had a fivefold increase between 2009 and 2012, drawing renewed attention from state officials who hadn't believed radiation would be a big problem from the state's drilling industry.
South Huntingdon is trying to block MAX Environmental Technologies Inc. from receiving DEP permission to accept a higher level radioactive waste, supervisor Melvin Cornell said.
“This stuff they compile as they dump it. It will grow and grow and grow,” Cornell said. “Hey, if there's nothing wrong, take it down, and make a playground with it where they live. That might sound harsh, but we don't want it here.”
Between 2009 and 2012, radiation alarms went off 1,325 times in 2012, with more than 1,000 of those alerts just from oil and gas waste, according to data from the Department of Environmental Protection.
The state's landfills have to one day be fit for people to live on after they close, so the state has to make sure they aren't allowing a dangerous build-up of radioactivity, officials said.
The spike in radiation alarms gave them pause for concern and is a big reason they started a year-long study of radioactivity in the shale gas industry, which the DEP announced in January.
“All the data we have indicates public health is protected. We want to make sure going forward, long term, things stay that way,” DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said.
State regulators, industry supporters and some scientists say that treating shale waste properly eliminates big health risk. But there are critics who argue that bringing large quantities of even low-level radioactive particles to the surface can lead to a slow, incremental build up of particles that people breathe or eat throughout their lifetimes.
The state began requiring radiation monitors at landfills in 2002 because of medical waste. But oil and gas waste — which brings up naturally occurring radiation formerly locked a mile or so underground — has become an increasing concern.
The spike in radiation alarms roughly corresponds shale drilling activity. Radiation detectors went off 423 times in 2008 and 1,325 times in 2012, according to DEP data. Gas drillers punched 335 new shale wells in 2008 and 1,354 new shale wells in 2012.
The average radium content in Marcellus shale wastewater samples was more than double the content found in wastewater from other gas-producing formations, the Geological Survey found in 2011.
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Friday, May 3, 2013

May 3, 2013

Middlefield drilling ban upheld

The Otsego County town of Middlefield and the Tompkins County town of Dryden — along with the principle of home rule — scored major victories Thursday, with the state Appellate Division issuing twin rulings that uphold their trail-blazing bans on natural gas drilling.
The towns had also prevailed in the first round of the case, with state Supreme Court judges backing their right to enact home-rule legislation against drilling.
The cases could end up before New York’s highest court — the Court of Appeals.
On the losing side of the mid-level appeals court decisions are the natural gas industry and Jennifer Huntington, operator of Cooperstown Holstein Corp., who said the town of Middlefield’s zoning change in June 2011 put a stop to her plans to have a conventional gas well at her property.
In the Dryden decision, which was cited in the Middlefield case, the court wrote: “We hold that (current law) does not preempt, either expressly or impliedly, a municipality’s power to enact a local zoning ordinance banning all activities related to the exploration for, and the production or storage of, natural gas and petroleum within its borders.”
Huntington said she decided to file the lawsuit against Middlefield in order to get legal clarity over whether the town had the right to prevent local landowners from allowing gas wells to be put into operation on their parcels.
“This is how the democratic process works in the United States,” she said. “If you have a question or a concern with a rule or law, this is how you go about it. There were regulations already on the books. There was a disagreement in the interpretation of them. It was a difference of opinion.”
Kurkoski took issue with the decisions, saying: “The Appellate Division interpreted the oil and gas law by relying on a mining case decided by the Court of Appeals. The laws and the policy behind each law are vastly different. The mining laws specifically allow zoning but the oil and gas law does not. Most importantly, New York will never have an effective energy policy if our courts equate the state’s interests in promoting the production of sand and gravel with the production of energy.”
Middlefield Town Supervisor Dave Bliss told The Daily Star: “We’re pleased that the court has agreed with our position that a ban is not a regulation, and we had the authority to do what we did.”

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Appeals Upholds Home Rule
May 2, 2013
Jon Campbell
ALBANY — A mid-level appeals court on Thursday said local governments in New York can ban hydraulic fracturing and shale-gas drilling within their borders, delivering a major blow to the natural-gas industry and landowners who had sought to have the bans overturned.
The state Appellate Division ruled unanimously in favor of the Tompkins County town of Dryden and the Otsego County town of Middlefield, both of which passed zoning laws that prohibit natural-gas drilling. The rulings upheld decisions last year from a lower court.
The so-called "home rule" issue has been a topic of contention among the gas industry and critics of fracking, a technique where water, sand and chemicals are injected deep underground to fracture shale and release natural gas.
Proponents of fracking contended New York law prohibits local bans because it defers all regulatory oversight of drilling to the state; Dryden and Middlefield argued the clause in state law doesn't impede on their ability to use zoning laws as they see fit.
Since the appeals court ruled unanimously, Norse Energy and Middlefield farmer Jennifer Huntington -- the plaintiffs in the two cases -- would have to receive permission from the state Court of Appeals for the case to be appealed

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

First County in US Bans Oil and Gas Extraction

By Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund   Published: Wednesday 1 May 2013
Article image

Monday the County Commission of Mora County, located in northeastern New Mexico, became the first county in the U.S. to pass an ordinance banning all oil and gas extraction.
Drafted with assistance from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the Mora County Community Water Rights and Local Self-Government Ordinance establishes a local Bill of Rights—including a right to clean air and water, a right to a healthy environment and the rights of nature—while prohibiting activities which would interfere with those rights, including oil drilling and hydraulic fracturing for shale gas.
Communities across the country are facing drilling and fracking. Fracking brings significant environmental impacts including the production of millions of gallons of toxic wastewater, which can affect drinking water and waterways. Studies have found that fracking is a major global warming contributor, and have linked the underground disposal of frack wastewater to earthquakes.
“Existing state and federal oil and gas laws force fracking and other extraction activities into communities, overriding concerns of residents,” explained Thomas Linzey, Esq., CELDF executive director. “Today’s vote in Mora County is a clear rejection of this structure of law which elevates corporate rights over community rights, which protects industry over people and the natural environment.”  
“This vote is a clear expression of the rights guaranteed in the New Mexico Constitution which declares that all governing authority is derived from the people. With this vote, Mora is joining a growing people’s movement for community and nature’s rights,” said Linzey.