In a weekend story, the Associated Press analyzed water-related claims associated with oil and natural gas development in several key energy-producing states, including Pennsylvania. And while the AP suggests that its data “casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen,” the facts demonstrate that such cases are indeed rare and that the root of these claims are often associated with unique, regional geological conditions where shallow methane (or natural gas) is historically present.
The AP reports this:
- Experts and regulators agree that investigating complaints of water-well contamination is particularly difficult, in part because some regions also have natural methane gas pollution or other problems unrelated to drilling. A 2011 Penn State study found that about 40 percent of water wells tested prior to gas drilling failed at least one federal drinking water standard. Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that don’t have private water-well construction standards.
In addition to the Penn State study cited by the AP, two recent U.S. Geological Survey studies determined that high-levels of methane were present in private water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania (Sullivan Co.) and the Southern Tier of New York – both are regions where shale development has not occurred. These studies, and many others, further underscore the longstanding geological challenges in this region (watch this video to learn more).
To be sure, the industry and the regulatory community understand these challenges – and steps continue to be made to proactively address these challenges aimed at making certain that groundwater is protecting.
- In February of 2011, the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued new well casing and construction standards to further protect groundwater. These standards, which the industry supported, mandate that operators drilling a Marcellus Shale well utilize four casing strings (layers of steel pipe) to ensure that the contents within the wellbore do not communicated with groundwater. As noted in the Associated Press analysis, drilling related water events dropped from 29 in 2010 to 18 in 2011 and 5 in the first half of 2012.
- Recognizing that Pennsylvania’s geology is unique and much of the Marcellus development is taking place in communities who rely on water wells, MSC member companies pre-test all known water wells (with the homeowner’s consent) within a 2,500 feet of a proposed well. This pre-drill water test is done in accordance with DEP protocol and the results are provided to both the homeowner and the DEP so that if a homeowner believes their water chemistry has changed as a result of drilling operations, a baseline test is recorded to determine causation.
- In October of 2012, the MSC issued Recommended Practices for Responding to Stray Gas Incidents. This guidance document outlines processes and procedures for both natural gas producers and homeowners to ensure safety and the matter is properly investigated.
Additionally, the public should know that these events are indeed rare. Consider this data:
- From January 1, 2005 through the end of 2013, there have been 32,625 oil and natural gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania (of which 7,426 were unconventional/Marcellus Shale wells), according to DEP.
- There are more than 1 million water wells in Pennsylvania, according to Penn State University and approximately 20,000 new water wells drilled each year.
- And while the natural gas industry takes every step possible to mitigate and eliminate the risk of methane migration and surface spills,106 of the Commonwealth’s water wells have been impacted, according to AP’s analysis.
As noted in the AP story, the MSC – as outlined in our Guiding Principles – is committed to continuous improvement and transparency in our operations:
Steve Forde, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the leading industry group in Pennsylvania, said in a statement that “transparency and making data available to the public is critical to getting this historic opportunity right and maintaining the public’s trust.”
When the state Environmental Department determines natural gas development has caused problems, Forde said, “our member companies work collaboratively with the homeowner and regulators to find a speedy resolution.”
There is an effective regulatory process in place at the DEP to address and evaluate all water quality-related claims, regardless of the cause. As data shows, the modernization of Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas regulations have had a profoundly positive impact for our environment. And of course, if a homeowner believes their water well has been impacted by natural gas development, we encourage them to contact the DEP immediately.