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As Fracking Proliferates, So Do Wastewater Wells

Jennifer Whitney for The Texas Tribune
TERRENCE HENRY and                                               Published: March 28, 2013
GONZALES, Tex. — In a dusty lot off the main highway in this South Texas town, Vern Sartin pointed to a collection of hose hookups and large storage tanks used for collecting wastewater from hydraulic fracturing jobs.
“We run about 30 to 40 trucks a day, 24-7,” Mr. Sartin said. “Depending on how the oil fracking is going out there, if they’re hustling and bustling, then we’re hustling and bustling.”

Mr. Sartin is a watchman at a disposal well operated by Gulf Coast Acquisitions, where each day oil and gas companies dispose of wastewater by pumping it deep underground.

Wastewater disposal wells like this one are becoming a common landmark in the drilling regions of Texas as the water-intensive practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, continues to spread. In the fracking process, several million gallons of water, combined with sand and chemicals, are sent down a well to break up rock and retrieve oil and gas. Some of the fluid comes back up, along with additional underground water.

Most of this wastewater is trucked to disposal wells and injected thousands of feet underground for permanent storage. But those wells have caused concern about truck traffic, accidents and the possibility for spills and groundwater contamination.

Texas oil and gas regulators may soon tighten the rules for the construction of the wells, and they are encouraging drilling companies to reduce waste by recycling more water.

Here and at other sites with big disposal wells, dozens of trucks a day roll in to pump out wastewater. Typically a dark, relatively thick liquid smelling of sulfur, and containing chemicals and minerals, the wastewater generally has high salinity. Sometimes, it contains low levels of radiation.

The wastewater goes into a pit, then into a separator tank that allows the remaining oil to surface. Workers then skim the oil and sell it.

The amount of wastewater being disposed of in Texas wells has skyrocketed with the spread of fracking, to nearly 3.5 billion barrels in 2011 from 46 million barrels in 2005, according to data from the Railroad Commission of Texas, the state’s oil and gas regulator. On average, companies in Texas dispose of 290 million barrels of wastewater — equivalent to about 18,500 Olympic-size swimming pools — each month.

Fracking's Latest Scandal? Earthquake Swarms

Turns out that when a barely regulated industry injects highly pressurized wastewater into faults, things can go terribly wrong.

AT EXACTLY 10:53 P.M. on Saturday, November 5, 2011, Joe and Mary Reneau were in the bedroom of their whitewashed and brick-trimmed home, a two-story rambler Mary's dad custom-built 43 years ago. Their property encompasses 440 acres of rolling grasslands in Prague, Oklahoma (population 2,400), located 50 miles east of Oklahoma City. When I arrive at their ranch almost a year later on a bright fall morning, Joe is wearing a short-sleeve shirt and jeans held up by navy blue suspenders, and is wedged into a metal chair on his front stoop sipping black coffee from a heavy mug. His German shepherd, Shotzie, is curled at his feet. Joe greets me with a crushing handshake—he is 200 pounds, silver-haired and 6 feet tall, with thick forearms and meaty hands—and invites me inside. He served in Vietnam, did two tours totaling nine years with the Defense Intelligence Agency, and then, in 1984, retired a lieutenant colonel from the US Army to sell real estate and raise cattle. Today, the livestock are gone and Joe calls himself "semiretired" because "we still cut hay in the summers."
On that night in November, just as he and Mary were about to slip into bed, there was "a horrendous bang, like an airliner crashing in our backyard," Joe recalls. Next came 60 seconds of seismic terror. "The dust was flying and we were hanging onto the bed watching the walls go back and forth." Joe demonstrates by hunching over and gripping the mattress in their bedroom. He points to the bathroom. "The mirror in the vanity exploded as if somebody blew it out with a shotgun." When the shaking stopped, Joe surveyed the damage. "Every corner of the house was fractured," he says. The foundation had sunk two inches. But most frightening was what Joe discovered in the living room: "Our 28-foot-tall freestanding chimney had come through the roof." It had showered jagged debris onto a brown leather sofa positioned in front of their flat-screen TV. Joe shows me the spot. "It's Mary's favorite perch. Had she been here…" He chokes up.
Joe and Mary Reneau
Joe and Mary Reneau Photographs by Ben Sklar
The earthquake registered a magnitude 5.7*—the largest ever recorded in Oklahoma—with its epicenter less than two miles from the Reneaus' house, which took six months to rebuild. It injured two people, destroyed 14 homes, toppled headstones, closed schools, and was felt in 17 states. It was preceded by a 4.7 foreshock the morning prior and followed by a 4.7 aftershock.
The quake baffled seismologists. The only possible culprit was the Wilzetta Fault, a 320-million-year-old rift lurking between Prague and nearby Meeker. "But the Wilzetta was a dead fault that nobody ever worried about," says Katie Keranen, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of Oklahoma. We're driving in her red SUV, just south of the Reneaus' property, when she stops to point out where the quake tore open a footwide fissure across State Highway 62. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) maintains a database of seismically risky areas. Its assessment of the Wilzetta Fault, Keranen notes, was "zero probability of expected ground motion. This fault is like an extinct volcano. It should never have been active."
When the Wilzetta mysteriously and violently awakened, Keranen wanted to know why. So she partnered with scientists from the USGS and Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. The morning after the initial foreshock, Keranen's team scrambled to install three seismometers around Prague. They did so in time to capture the quake system in unprecedented detail. She says, "We got this beautiful image of the fault plane." Within a week, her team and other scientists had placed a total of 25 devices around the fault zone. One is buried in the Reneaus' backyard. Now, having completed a yearlong study (just published in the journal Geology), Keranen's research indicates the Oklahoma earthquakes were likely attributable to underground injection of wastewater derived from "dewatering," separating crude oil from the soupy brine reaped through a drilling technique that allows previously inaccessible oil to be pumped up. "Pretty much everybody who looks at our data accepts that these events were likely caused by injection," Keranen concludes.
"We still feel tremors weekly," complains Joe Reneau. "They rattle our windows." The couple hasn't bothered to rehang family photos in their living room. Instead, the framed snapshots are stacked in tidy piles on a coffee table.


by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

,   Spring 2011    

Expert: drilling impact two orders of

magnitude bigger - with no regs

When you talk about hydraulic fracturing, you’re not just talking about “fracking,” says Tony Ingraffea. You’re not just talking about Marcellus shale, either, he told nearly 400 people in Cortland recently. Ingraffea should know. 

Not only is he the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, but he also directs the Cornell Fracture Group. And he received his doctorate in rock fracturing.

Earlier in his career, Ingraffea conducted research in aerospace engineering. “Now, 30 years later,” he jokes, “I’m back to looking at fractures in rocks.” Over the past year Ingraffea has visited a number of communities to share his knowledge about geology, fractures and engineering aspects of gas wells.

Unconventional wells are nothing like earlier gas wells in New York, Ingraffea says. He estimates that there are about 50,000 conventional wells in the state, each drilled with one well to the pad, each using about 80,000 gallons of fluids to fracture rock and release gas trapped in the formation.

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Tioga gas drilling lawsuit could set 

Landowners' claim seeks release from forced lease extensions

10:11 PM, Feb. 17, 2012

A federal lawsuit filed by Tioga County landowners may set the pace in a statewide legal scrum over the ability of energy companies to forcibly extend their leases.
Denver-based Inflection Energy, one of the most active energy companies in the Southern Tier, is facing a federal lawsuit filed by 18 landowners, representing about 1,200 acres, whose leases were forcibly extended through "force majeure" claims.
Many of the landowners are locked into leases that pay as low as $2 per acre per year, but aren't seeking monetary compensation, according to Robert Jones, an attorney for Binghamton-based Coughlin & Gerhart.
"All they're looking for at this point is to get released from the current leases that they believe are expired," Jones said.
Force majeure clauses, included in most oil and gas leases, allow a company to extend the length of the lease in the case of an unforeseen event that hinders the terms of the contract.
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Chesapeake Energy describes adjustment in royalty payments

Chesapeake Energy has sent a letter to its royalty owners advising them of some adjustments in their royalty payments this year following a court decision.

"As a result of these adjustments, you will see a reduction in the amount you receive for your royalty share," Chesapeake wrote.
A copy of the correspondence was obtained by The Daily Review.
In the Jan. 24 letter, Chesapeake explained that the reason for the adjustments had to do with the fact that in 2008-09, several lawsuits were filed in Pennsylvania that sought to clarify whether royalty owners should share in the expense of post-production functions needed to get the gas to market.
Chesapeake wrote, "These are costs incurred beyond the wellhead after the gas is ready for sale or use. Opinions varied on this issue as it had never been decided in Pennsylvania."
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Eric Hrin can be reached at (570) 297-5251; email:

   Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

After Scott Ely and his father talked with salesmen from an energy company about signing the lease allowing gas drilling on their land in northeastern Pennsylvania, he said he felt certain it required the company to leave the property as good as new.
So Mr. Ely said he was surprised several years later when the drilling company, Cabot Oil and Gas, informed them that rather than draining and hauling away the toxic drilling sludge stored in large waste ponds on the property, it would leave the waste, cover it with dirt and seed the area with grass. He knew that waste pond liners can leak, seeping contaminated waste. 
Americans have signed millions of leases allowing companies to drill for oil and natural gas on their land in recent years. But some of these landowners — often in rural areas, and eager for quick payouts — are finding out too late what is, and what is not, in the fine print.

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Signing Drilling Leases, and Now Having Regrets

DRYDEN, N.Y. — Four years ago a man and a woman knocked on Katharine D. Dewart’s door, offering easy money for the use of her land.
Handing her a brochure that included serene before-and-after pictures, they explained that a natural gas company was seeking to drill somewhere on her 35 acres of wildflower fields surrounded by hemlock woods in this Tompkins County town near Ithaca.
Ms. Dewart, 68, served lemonade and signed, accepting $1,909 upfront and royalty payments of 12.5 percent of any sales of gas extracted from her property. “I assumed it’d be noisy for a couple of months, and I’d have a little extra cash and wouldn’t that be great,” Ms. Dewart, a writer, said.
Now, she said, she is stricken with remorse. And she is not alone. Hundreds of other state residents who signed leases allowing gas companies to drill deep into their properties with a method known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing have changed their minds and are trying to break or renegotiate their contracts. Millions of acres in upstate New York are under lease, awaiting permits for the drilling, which has yet to begin, delayed by a state environmental review.
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The Wall Street Journal       Market Watch
Jan. 23, 2012, 1:32 p.m. EST

U.S. cuts estimates for shale gas resources

By Tennille Tracy
WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- U.S. energy officials have cut their natural gas resource estimates, saying Monday that there is far less gas in a region known as the Marcellus Shale than previously thought.

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Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate of Shale Gas
By IAN URBINA       
Published: August 24, 2011

WASHINGTONFederal geologists published new estimates this week for the amount of natural gas that exists in a giant rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York to Virginia.
The shale formation has about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the report from the United States Geological Survey. This is drastically lower than the 410 trillion cubic feet that was published earlier this year by the federal Energy Information Administration.
A version of this article appeared in print on August 25, 2011, on page A16 of the New York edition with the headline: Geologists Sharply Cut Estimate Of Shale Ga



Pipelines Explained: How Safe are America’s 2.5 Million Miles of Pipelines?

Map of major natural gas and oil pipelines in the United States. Hazardous liquid lines in red, gas transmission lines in blue. Source: Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

At 6:11 p.m. on September 6, 2010, San Bruno, Calif. 911 received an urgent call. A gas station had just exploded and a fire with flames reaching 300 feet was raging through the neighborhood. The explosion was so large that residents suspected an airplane crash. But the real culprit was found underground: a ruptured pipeline spewing natural gas caused a blast that left behind a 72 foot long crater, killed eight people, and injured more than fifty.
Over 2,000 miles away in Michigan, workers were still cleaning up another pipeline accident, which spilled 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. Estimated to cost $800 million, the accident is the most expensive pipeline spill in U.S. history.
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Powerful Pipes, Weak Oversight
Welders for Eagle Construction work on a pipeline near Waynesburg in
southwestern Pennsylvania this summer. After problems with welds, the
owners of the line, Consol Energy, fired a previous crew and brought in
new welders, shown here. Later, after other safety problems on the job,
Consol fired Eagle.( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )
First in a four-part series.
WAYNESBURG, Pa. - Through the hilly fields here in southwestern Pennsylvania, crews worked for months this year, cutting a trench through woods and past farms for a new natural gas pipeline.
Like many other lines crisscrossing the state's Marcellus Shale regions, this pipe was big - a high-pressure steel line, 20 inches in diameter, large enough to help move a buried ocean of natural gas out of this corner of the state. It was also plenty big enough to set off a sizable explosion if something went wrong.
There was trouble on the job. Far too many of the welds that tied the pipe sections together were failing inspection and had to be done over.
A veteran welder, now an organizer for a national pipeline union, happened upon the line and tried to blow the whistle on what he considered substandard work.
But there was no one to call.
Pennsylvania's regulators don't handle those pipelines, and acknowledge they don't even know where they are. And when he reported what he saw to a federal oversight agency, an inspector told him there was nothing he could do, either.
Because the line was in a rural area, no safety rules applied.
"It's crazy," said Terry Langley, the union official, worried that any problems would literally be buried. "It seems to me that everyone is turning a blind eye."

Welders for Eagle Construction work on a pipeline near Waynesburg in southwestern Pennsylvania this summer. After problems with welds, the owners of the line, Consol Energy, fired a previous crew and brought in new welders, shown here. Later, after other safety problems on the job, Consol fired Eagle.( Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer )


Ambitious U.S. gas pipeline illustrates hazards

Finished in 2009 at a cost of almost $7 billion, the REX natural gas pipeline - running from the gas fields of Colorado through Ohio to the edge of Pennsylvania - stands as one of the nation's most ambitious infrastructure projects in a quarter-century.
It was also a job plagued with problems, demonstrating that despite industry assurances that new lines are safer than ever, they may not be safe enough.
In 2009, just six weeks after passing a battery of final pressure tests, the line leaked natural gas - triggering an evacuation of nearby homes in southeastern Ohio. The leak occurred in a pipeline section that federal safety inspectors had previously flagged for poor construction techniques.


Key Pipeline Accidents

Jan. 11, 2011 A leak was found in the Millennium interstate transmission line, built in 2009, in New York state. Later investigation found that a section had flunked a visual inspection and was set aside but was installed by mistake. No one was hurt.

Jan. 18, 2011 A gas main being repaired in Philadelphia exploded, killing a PGW repair crew member and injuring six people.

Feb. 10, 2011 Five people were killed and eight homes were destroyed in a gas explosion and fire in Allentown. After a 1990 gas explosion in Allentown, federal safety investigators had warned that iron gas mains needed replacement in the town.

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Federal pipeline oversight agency was troubled from the start

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Homeowners and gas drilling Leases: Boon or Bust?
By Elisabeth N. Radow

A home represents a family’s most valuable asset, financially and otherwise

Residential fracking carries heavy industrial risks, and the ripple effects could be tremendous. Homeowners can be confronted with uninsurable property damage for activities that they cannot control. And now a growing number of banks won’t give new mortgage loans on homes with gas leases because they don’t meet secondary mortgage market guidelines. New construction starts, the bellwether of economic recovery, won’t budge where residential fracking occurs since construction loans depend on risk-free property and a purchaser. This shift of drilling risks from the gas companies to the housing sector, homeowners and taxpayers creates a perfect storm begging for immediate attention.
The introduction of fracking in homeowners’ backyards presents a divergence from typical current land use practice, which separates residential living from heavy industrial activity, and the gas leases allocate rights and risks between the homeowner and gas company-lessee in uncharacteristic ways. Also, New York’s compulsory integration law can force neighbors who do not want to lease their land into a drilling pool, which can affect their liability and mortgages as well.

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Rush to Drill for Natural Gas Creates Conflicts With Mortgages

Worried about property values, and landowners signing leases giving companies the rights to drill on their lands without clearance, lenders are reinforcing restrictions.                                                                                 As natural gas drilling has spread across the country, energy industry representatives have sat down at kitchen tables in states like Texas, Pennsylvania and New York to offer homeowners leases that give companies the right to drill on their land.

Like many landowners, Marie McRae, who has a farm in Freeville, N.Y., says she was not aware she needed her lender's permission for a gas lease.
And over the past 10 years, as natural gas has become increasingly important to the nation’s energy future, Americans have signed more than a million of these leases.
But bankers and real estate executives, especially in New York, are starting to pay closer attention to the fine print and are raising provocative questions, such as: What happens if they lend money for a piece of land that ends up storing the equivalent of an Olympic-size swimming pool filled with toxic wastewater from drilling?                                                                                                      
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