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 There’s historical references going back to the 1800s for methane seeps in Susquehanna County.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).
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.
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.