Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Put Under Microscope

Moratorium weighed as towns, people wary of potential mishaps

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
13 June 2010
By Don Hopey

This month has not been a quiet one for the booming Marcellus Shale natural gas well drilling industry, and the commotion has the attention of Debbie Borowiec of Upper Burrell, where two gas wells are planned near 67 homes on Chapeldale Drive.

The industry noise began with a "blowout" on June 3 at a Marcellus Shale well outside Penfield in rural Clearfield County. That well, adjacent to the Moshannon State Forest, spewed natural gas and drilling wastewater contaminated with toxic chemicals into the air for 16 hours.

On Monday, drillers hit a pocket of methane in an inactive deep mine, causing an explosion and fire that flared 50-feet high for four days, destroyed a drilling rig and burned all seven workers on the well pad, located in a farm field near Moundsville in West Virginia's northern panhandle.

"We're horrified by the possibilities of that happening here," Ms. Borowiec said about Marcellus Shale wells planned for a pad 1,500 feet from homes in Upper Burrell. "The more research we do the more horrific it is, and I don't think a lot of people know what's going on."

The Pennsylvania and West Virginia accidents at gas wells tapping into the mile-deep, gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation have alerted some for the first time to risks that accompany what some have termed a gas-drilling gold rush, and heightened serious safety and environmental concerns for others.

The state Department of Environmental Resources has said wastewater that escaped during the blowout in Clearfield County contaminated a spring near the drill pad but did not taint creeks and streams.

"We now have a worst-case scenario at the Clearfield County site where there is evidence of a catastrophic release of gas and contaminated water from Marcellus well drilling," 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.

The "golden lining" of the Clearfield County accident, he said, is that it occurred in a rural, relatively unpopulated area.

"If that accident had occurred in a populated area, like Lincoln Place in Pittsburgh, it would have had a serious impact on human health without a doubt," said Dr. Volz, referring to the city neighborhood where a land company has been buying up gas drilling rights. No wells have been drilled there.

"If they were to put up a one-mile safety radius like they did in Clearfield, you're looking at evacuating 3,000 to 5,000 people, five elementary schools, two middle schools, Carrick High School and lots of businesses and industry," he said.

"Also, the gas emitted in the Clearfield blowout didn't ignite, but in densely populated areas every house is a potential ignition source; so the odds of a catastrophic explosion go up."

The Marcellus Shale lies 5,000 to 8,000 feet deep under three-fourths of Pennsylvania and parts of New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia. It contains approximately 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas -- enough to supply U.S. demand for 10 to 15 years.

New deep directional drilling technology has made the 450-million-year-old Devonian formation the hottest natural gas "play," or deposit, in the nation, and development pressure is mounting in rural and more populated, even urban, areas. This year alone, the DEP has issued 1,985 new Marcellus drilling permits, and 763 wells are either completed or under construction.

Drilling for and extracting the gas could bring billions of dollars into the state and create thousands of jobs, according to industry officials. But getting the gas out of the shale requires drilling companies to pump millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals into the shale under tremendous pressure to fracture, or "frack," the shale formation and release the gas.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a drilling industry advocacy group, says drilling and extraction operations are safe and that accidents are rare. The Clearfield County "blowout" -- an uncontrolled release of gas and at least 35,000 gallons of drilling fluids -- was the first reported on a Marcellus Shale well.

"Any situation in which the drilling doesn't go according to plan is serious," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

"We are heartened that there were no injuries at the Clearfield County site and the environment is OK," she said. "We are relieved that it turned out the way it did."

But Dr. Volz said the recent accidents should raise a red flag, noting that there have been leaks and fires at Marcellus Shale drilling operations in Pennsylvania as well as blowouts in other gas shale areas around the country. That should preclude locating gas wells on school properties -- under consideration by some Pennsylvania districts -- and state-owned forests, parks and properties, he said.

"This is a public health issue, and there should be careful deliberations, not only by the state Department of Environmental Protection but also the Department of Health, which is on the hook for public health and would be derelict if it doesn't act quickly to deal with this," Dr. Volz said.

He said the state needed to institute detailed emergency management plans for Marcellus Shale well sites and require standardized training for fire companies and other agencies that respond to emergencies. That training, when provided now, is handled informally and irregularly by drilling companies.

The recent accidents have raised calls for a moratorium on Marcellus Shale drilling until environmental and public health risks are addressed.

"I do think we need a statewide moratorium. It's the only thing that will stop all this drilling and give us time to figure out what's going on," said Ms. Borowiec, who plans to join other residents of Upper Burrell and Murrysville today on a bus tour of Hickory. Some residents of that Washington County community say Marcellus Shale wells and gas pipeline compressors there have caused air pollution, noise problems and road degradation.

Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said enacting a moratorium on drilling would go too far. But he said he favored more regulation and safeguards, especially in more densely populated areas.

"We always realized that there are risks going after sources of energy, be they oil or gas or coal," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "The Marcellus Shale development is only a few years old, and it could be an important new industry; but we've got to make sure it's done right, that it follows procedures and that the procedures are right."

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, announced Friday that he planned to introduce legislation calling for a one-year, statewide moratorium, similar to a ban already enacted in New York, on new Marcellus Shale well drilling.

"A new industry is entering our state to a lot of excitement and expectations because of the promise of great economic opportunity; but it is clouding our judgment," Mr. Ferlo said.

"We need to take a step back and re-examine the impact that this new activity is going to have on our environment, our state's tourism industry, our labor force, our water resources and on our communities and residents."

But Ms. Klaber said the gas industry has been drilling safely for years in a variety of unconventional shale gas regions, including the big Barnett Shale gas play in Texas.

"To call for a moratorium at a time when family incomes are in decline and they need a good supply and a fair price on gas to heat their homes is not a good policy, especially when there are good people developing the resource," Ms. Klaber said.

She said the industry in Pennsylvania would use the Clearfield County blowout as an opportunity to learn how to avoid similar incidents.

Joan Kearns, Council president in Murrysville, said community leaders there and around the region also were on a learning curve about proposed Marcellus Shale drilling and what they can do to protect their constituents. She said she'd seen what she describes as "preliminary proposals" to drill wells in Murrysville near its border with Plum, along Logan's Ferry Road and not far from housing developments on Route 286 and Holiday Park.

The state Oil and Gas Act severely limits the restrictions and prohibitions municipalities can impose on well drilling, she said, but a state Supreme Court decision last year in a case involving Oakmont allows municipalities to use zoning ordinances to limit and direct where wells can be drilled.

"In light of the Oakmont decision, we're looking at whether we can zone some areas where such [drilling] activities would be more appropriate," said Ms. Kearns, who also is heading a nine-member community drilling task force.

"Those areas would have less residents," she said. "I don't know of anybody who wants such activity in their backyard or their side yard."

She said all options available to mitigate the impact Marcellus drilling activities would be fully explored by the task force, which will recommend a plan to the municipality's planning and zoning boards.

Her own awareness of Marcellus Shale drilling has been sharpened by the recent accidents, she said, but she was already aware of drilling impacts, including deteriorating roads and other problems.

"I don't think the DEP has investigated the long-term environmental impacts and the impacts drilling is having on communities," Ms. Kearns said. "The roads around drilling sites in Washington County have been pulverized. As for social impacts ... most workers are from out of state. They have no ownership or pride in the community.

"There are communities around the state that are saying they can't do anything, but we are at a flash point. We, as municipal officials, are obligated to protect our communities and our residents. It is, after all, what we were elected to do."

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.