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Pennsylvania Drilling Data Isn’t What Fractivists Hoped

Methane Seeps - Jim Willis reportsJim Willis
Editor & Publisher, Marcellus Drilling News (MDN)


Recent releases of drilling data from Pennsylvania have already stirred fractivist hearts but there is nothing there to suggest the hydraulic fracturing process isn’t safe.    

Here comes the next media smear campaign. This time the meme is “You know that lie we’ve been telling about how shale drilling contaminates water wells? Well it was true all along. Here’s the proof!”

Case in point: The Associated Press has a single, breathless story of a new list just released by the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) of 243 water wells “contaminated” by Marcellus Shale drilling. We’ve included the list below. These 243 are wells DEP officials believe have been affected by shale drilling after conducting an investigation. Some of the cases are still under investigation but included on the list because the DEP thinks they were likely contaminated by drilling. Is this the smoking gun? Is Marcellus drilling a threat to water after all? As always, MDN is here to provide some much needed perspective.

Some Perspective on the Pennsylvania Drilling Data

The document below is a catalog–a list–that links to underlying paperwork for each instance where a well has been affected. Names of the water well owner have been redacted–blacked out. But, if you have time and want to go through it document by document, have at it. We’ve opened a few documents to get an idea of what they say.

List of PA Water Wells Affected by Marcellus Shale Drilling
Provided Courtesy of Marcellus Drilling News

Here’s what we notice about the list and the documents we’ve opened:

1.   First, let’s get our terms, and their misuse by the media, straight.

“Contamination” includes methane leaking into a water well. You can drink water with methane in it from sunup to sundown and it won’t hurt you. There’s no EPA drinking water standard for it. People with water wells in places like Susquehanna County, PA have been water “laced” with methane for 150 years.

They’ve also been lighting their water on fire for that long too! There’s historical references going back to the 1800s for methane seeps in Susquehanna County. Methane migration into a water well is not a good thing–but it’s also not a disaster. It can either be completely reversed, or if not reversed, it can be mitigated (fixed) with a system that cleans it out of the water.

Here’a little video of the water at Salt Springs State Park in Susquehanna County being lit on fire:

You will see the media and anti-drilling groups continuously make the point these 243 wells were “contaminated” by drilling. The vast majority of the so-called contamination is methane migration. Which in our book isn’t really contamination.

2.   Much of this is old news, the first 19 entries in the list being from Dimock.

This is a poor sort-order by the DEP to be sure, since anti-drillers have used Dimock (popularized by Josh Fox’s fictional Gasland movies) as a rallying cry. It re-introduces, without the historical perspective, a now-closed case into the public conscience yet again (good for fundraising for groups like the Sierra Club).

Pennsylvania drilling data - Dimock

What residents of Dimock say.

All 19 Dimock families (served by 18 water wells) are related to a couple of wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas in a very small area in Dimock. All 18 “contaminated” wells were determined by DEP, by private testing services, and by none other than the federal EPA, to have been “contaminated” with methane and nothing more. They’re all now fixed.

No chemicals of any kind were found in extensive testing by state and federal authorities. Cabot fixed the methane migration in the Dimock water wells for those families who didn’t see big bucks in a lawsuit (some refused the fix). Eventually, all of cases (with the exception of one unresolved case) were settled. Our point: 19 of the 243 wells in the list are Dimock. That’s 8% of the cases on the entire list attributed to one instance that was resolved long ago. And all 19 were methane migration.

3.   Drillers have gotten better at preventing such these types of problems.

You’ll notice most of the violations stem from the years prior to 2013, with the majority happening from 2008-2010. Drillers are not reckless. They don’t like making mistakes and when they do, they analyze their mistakes and take corrective action to prevent it from happening again. They learn. They don’t take pleasure in causing harm to anyone–including precious Mother Earth. It’s obvious to anyone scanning this list that Marcellus drilling in PA is getting better year after year–with fewer and fewer problems (at least water well problems).

4.  The problems are primarily in Northeast PA where methane is an issue.

Pennsylvania drilling data - t-shirt

The vast majority of water wells affected by drilling (most of which have been via methane migration), have happened in the eastern (e.g., Bradford and Susquehanna Counties) and northwestern portions of PA. There are very few (14 to be exact) water well issues related to drilling in Southwest PA. The tee-shirt emblem depicted to the right suggests why.

The Big Picture on the Pennsylvania Drilling Data

Let’s zoom out and look at the big picture. Shale drilling is an industrial activity. Big machinery, lots of trucks, heavy equipment, etc. Any kind of industrial activity–no matter if it is drilling a shale well or building a bridge or even building a windmill–has risk. Things can and will go wrong. To expect zero risk and zero problems is not living in the real world. It is a fantasy.

There have been 243 water wells that have been affected to date. There have been, as of the latest PA production report issued a few weeks ago, 7,679 “unconventional” or horizontal shale wells drilled in PA to date. If you calculate the percentage, those 243 adversely affected water wells (most of them with fixable methane migration), as problematic as they may be, represent a rate of only 3%. Yes, we wish it were lower – but as we pointed out, it’s getting lower as time goes on which is precisely what we’d expect. This video tells the story:

We realize the majority of Americans these days like McNews – watching TMZ and Comedy Central is how they consume their high caloric, low information news. They won’t bother to consider the real issues at play here. Most will scan a pejorative AP story and conclude that, “Yep, that thar shale drillin’ is dangerous after all. It’s pollutin’ our water!”

But, we know the the real story and, more importantly, the economic and environmental miracle of Marcellus Shale drilling in PA.

Editor’s Note: We are planning our own analysis of the DEP data but thought it important to get Jim’s excellent perspectives out quickly. He’s always the first to find things and the first to study them and, in this case in particular, his observations provide some much needed perspective. They also show this is, yet again, not about the hydraulic fracturing process or its safety, as much as Josh Fox and friends would try to make that the case. It’s about the separate drilling process that has been going on for more than a century here in Pennsylvania and the largely methane migration issues that can just as easily result from drilling water wells and geothermal wells.

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14 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Drilling Data Isn’t What Fractivists Hoped

  1. Right, Jim, the data isn’t what fractivists hoped, it’s what they and most thinking people had feared.

    Here is a link to the documents that actually works: http://bit.ly/1lyMfGG

    What is remarkable about this is how long it has taken to get the DEP to begin to release the data – years of requests and law suits – evidence that the role of the agency to date has been to protect the O&G industry not the health of Pennsylvania citizens.

    I went through some of the more recent cases and found few related to methane. The majority of the reports spoke of barium, iron, aluminum, manganese, magnesium, strontium, and other contaminates at levels much higher than pre-drilling samples. The letters were unequivocal in explaining the that the causes were nearby drilling.

    Smoking gun? You can bet your toxic fracking fluids this is a smoking gun. And given the poor record of the DEP in responding to complaints, it is clear that this is far from a complete accounting of the problem.

    The only breathless reporting I’ve seen so far is your little perspective. This is not news to those whose water and lives have been disrupted by the industry you and Tom breathlessly defend.

    I’ve heard that barbecue sauce is helpful when eating crow.

  2. Tom you are a buzz killer for this cult…..Responsible is a word not found in the chicken little cult vocabulary. Everything has impact. I’m sure the Auto industry is happy the chicken little cult is focused on selective energy. Thanks for “dilling down into the actual facts”. You might want want to go back over the Huge water well issue in the rural areas of PA. In PA you can put a pump in a big mud puddle for drinking water as there are no regulation. Many states, NY for one ,you can’t just put a hose in a puddle , there is a whole permitting and testing process the homeowner and the driller must comply with. Many findings and “contamination” in the reports from PA rural areas come from turbulence from well drilling for water or gas. They are disturbing the bottom of the aquifers, sins from the past. How come there isn’t any municipal water problems? Are they immune? Or are they constructed to prevent issues from any type of surface run off contamination?

  3. You can dance around the issue all you want and make excuses galore, but the truth is, if someone didn’t have natural gas (after all that is what Methane is) before drilling, then a great injustice has been done to them if it is in their water after drilling. I sure as heck don’t want to drink or bathe or cook with that water, whether or not you claim it is harmless. You brush it off lightly like it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal. Of course not to those making the big bucks – they don’t really care what happens to their neighbors now do they? As long as they get their checks, all is fine in the world.

    You definitely lost this one.

    • Methane is already in the water, Jennifer. Did drilling aggravate it some cases? Yes. We’ve said that from the beginning. You’re reaching because there’s nothing new here.

    • I guess the people making the big bucks manufacturing and installing wind turbines don’t care much about the numerous bird kills either. Until you and the rest of your ilk actually concede that there are no panaceas out there you are not to be taken seriously. How about those planned solar panels, where would they go? Are you going to take large acreage of good land out of production aka “greenfields”? You may want to try it with brownfileds instead but since they are found in urbanized areas you could get some push back from environmental justice groups as well. Also, these panels may violate zoning and/or historic architectural restrictions, especially if they are publicly funded projects (which is more likely than not).

    • “Jennifer’s” first sentence says it all: “You can dance around the issue all you want and make excuses galore, but the truth is, IF someone didn’t have natural gas (after all that is what Methane is) before drilling, then a great injustice has been done to them if it is in their water after drilling.” The key word is capitalized – “IF”. It is a well known fact that Pa’s water standards and testing for home water wells is non – existent. Here’s a great article about Pike County, Pa and the methane problems in their water by the USGS – http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/pike-county-groundwater-study-finds-naturally-occurring-methane-1.1733136 It is important to note that there are NO high volume hydraulic fracturing sites anywhere nearby any of these wells. Also a NY water study also by the USGS – http://archive.pressconnects.com/article/20131217/NEWS01/312170062/Study-finds-methane-15-percent-upstate-N-Y-wells Don’t tell me “Jennifer” – the USGS is in collusion not only with the gas companies but with the DEP and all the PA politicians?

    • Ignorance creates hysteria. Arsenic is a trace element it appears all over the planet and is in all our sea water and sea water wildlife.. Arsenic is also an essential trace mineral required for a healthy heart. All toxicity is dose related. To find small amounts of any trace mineral on the planet is normal, nothing to get hysterical about.

  4. Ralphey arsenic occurs in the water of many places . Arsenic is also an element that also is used in Solar Panels. My god you dont suppose Renewable techno!ogies never poison ground water from the rooftops they are installed on ? How about that SULfur HEXAFLUORIDE used in in SOLAR PANELS AND COMPUTERS ? The most potent Greenhouse gas Sulfur hexafluoride according to the IPCC at 23900 times more potent perr molecule then CO2. Gosh we have to look at banning everything . Because I am very certain of only one thing WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE

  5. What needs to be disclosed are the water samples taken prior to drilling within 1000 feet of the water wells and other water sources. That is what reveals the arsenic, barium, iron, aluminum, manganese, magnesium, strontium, e-coli and other contaminates that is already in the water these folks have been drinking and bathing in for over 100 years. Efforts to provide clean water to rural PA has been ongoing since the ’70’s, but now these residents see deep pockets in the natural gas drillers and they want them to clean up the water in which the Good Lord did not do so first.

    Try suing God. After all, we all know that God is the real culprit, but God has no money. So let us blame the natural gas producers for contaminating the water, even though they have proven the water was already poisoned before they drilled, because they have money. Instead of taxing themselves to put in water districts with distribution capability, they would rather hide behind an antiquated presumption statute that is unfair and un-American because it presumes guilt instead of innocence.

  6. Pingback: Pennsylvania DEP Data Not What It's Hyped Up to Be - Natural Gas NowNatural Gas Now

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