Friday, April 3, 2009

Marcellus Shale Gas Play: Part 5

Once again, there are many issues that must be dealt with in this kind of Shale Gas development. The old adage that "there ain't no free lunch" certainly applies. But are giant wind turbines for generating electricity any less disruptive of the environment? Are thousands of acres of solar panels better for the environment? Are they close to being as efficient a source of energy as natural gas?

Can we dam-up some more rivers and create hydro-electricity? Can we build more nuclear power plants? What about cutting trees to burn for heat? How intelligent is it to plow up hundreds of thousands of acres, plant corn, water and fertilize it, harvest it, and then distill it to produce ethanol to burn as a fuel in our vehicles? Honest answers to these questions make drilling for natural gas our best option.

Local Issues

The process of drilling, fracing, and maintaining
natural gas wells can create significant heavy truck
traffic on rural roads, many of which were not
designed for carrying vehicles of this size. A recent
well in Lycoming County, for example, reportedly
required 77 tractor trailer loads simply to bring the
drilling equipment to the site.

Traffic will also include
trucks carrying large amounts of water. A report from
Denton, Texas, suggests that each drilling site could
require 364 such water truck trips, which would be
equivalent to 3,494,400 car trips (Denton County Oil
and Gas Task Force, 2005).

Local governments do have the option of
requiring companies to post a bond, but this requires
careful planning ahead of time in order to achieve
this, and the local government must be diligent about
following procedures to recover costs if the gas
company causes damage.

Water Issues
Water usage has been a concern in other states where
deep well drilling and hydrofracing have generated
both a demand for large quantities of water and
resulting waste fluids that require removal and
treatment. The millions of gallons of water required
for drilling and the associated waste products are also
major concerns here in Pennsylvania. As in other
states, the source of water
used in drilling raises an
issue, as do the waste fluids,
their treatment and disposal,
and natural bodies of water in the
vicinities of drilling activity and the
communities tied to them.

The Susquehanna River Basin
Commission (SRBC) regulates
significant water use
within its jurisdiction
(discussed below)
and recently ruled
that companies can
purchase water from
other permitted users with
excess capacity without prior approval of the SRBC,
provided that the total amounts used do not exceed
the permitted quantity.

As a result, widespread
interest has arisen among natural gas companies
in purchasing water from municipal water systems
and other already permitted users. If approached by
such a company, municipal water systems need to
carefully consider how much surplus capacity they
can sell without jeopardizing other users or other
future water-dependent economic development

Large water withdrawals may come from many
sources other than municipal water companies
(streams, ponds, lakes, etc.) and can have significant
effects if not performed carefully. Water withdrawals
generally exceeding 10,000 gallons per day require
permits or registration with DEP under authority
of the Water Resources Planning Act.

Withdrawals occurring in the Susquehanna or Delaware River
watersheds also require permits from the Susquehanna
River Basin Commission or the Delaware River Basin
Commission (discussed ahead). In addition, the Clean
Streams Law limits the amount of water that can be
withdrawn from streams to maintain sufficient stream
flows to protect aquatic life.

These various regulations have all
caused the shutting down of gas well drilling
operations that failed to acquire the proper permits or
exceeded allowable withdrawals from streams.

Another concern with deep gas well drilling
technologies is the disposal of large volumes of
wastewater resulting from the hydrofracturing
process. The water used in the drilling process is
mixed with sand and other products, and then is
pumped into the shale formation under high pressure
to fracture the shale so the natural gas can be
accessed. The volume of wastewater produced during
gas well drilling and operation can vary considerably
depending on the depth and location of the gas well.

One study in Pennsylvania found that the average
volumes of water produced during shallow gas well
drilling in western Pennsylvania was 25,000 gallons
during drilling, 50,000 gallons during stimulation,
and 150 gallons per day during production.
Drilling companies must identify where they
plan to obtain and store the water used in the drilling
operations and where the wastewater generated as part
of the drilling process (“frac” water) is to be stored,
treated, and disposed.

Erosion and Stormwater
Gas well construction involves extensive earth
disturbance, including roads, drilling pads, and
pipelines that can speed erosion. Drilling pads alone
may be four to six acres in size for deeper gas wells,
which is a larger portion of disturbed earth than used
for shallow well pads.

Various regulations, implemented through DEP
and Pennsylvania Conservation Districts, are in
place to protect surface water and groundwater from
erosion and sedimentation due to these disturbances.
Erosion and sediment control plan requirements
under state law apply to any earth disturbance
activities, including oil and gas drilling (Pa. Code
Chapter 102).

Erosion and sediment plans require gas
companies to use preventative measures such as filter
fence, sediment traps, vegetation, hay bales, culverts
with energy dissipaters, and rocked road entrances
to minimize erosion. These plans also include a
requirement to restore vegetation to the drill site
within nine months of well completion by planting
grass, trees, or crop plots.

For oil and gas activity on less than five acres,
an erosion and sediment control plan must contain
best management practices to minimize point-source
discharges to surface waters, preserve the integrity of
stream channels, and protect the physical, biological,
and chemical qualities of the receiving waterway.

For oil and gas activities that disturb more
than five acres at one time, a notice of intent and
general permit for authorization to control erosion
and sediment must be completed. The erosion and
sediment control plan or the notice of intent must be
submitted to DEP or an authorized county conservation
district for review and approval.

The DEP’s Bureau of Oil and Gas and each
individual county’s Conservation District oversee
the enforcement of erosion and sediment regulations
related to gas well operations.

While many residents throughout Pennsylvania
have voiced concerns about private water well and
spring contamination that can occur from gas well
drilling, the reality of these fears has shown to be
less prominent than assumed.

Data collected thus far from various
regulatory agencies responsible for
enforcement of gas well drilling regulations indicate
that more than 95 percent of complaints received
from homeowners suspecting problems from nearby
gas well drilling are in actuality due to preexisting
problems or other land-use activities such as
agriculture. However, when contamination does
occur as a result of drilling, the impacts can vary

While the instances are low, it is important
to be aware of the range of possible complications.
Pennsylvania law requires that before drilling to
deeper zones, gas drillers must install cemented steel
casing through all freshwater aquifers. This casing
protects groundwater by isolating the borehole from
the groundwater system. It also keeps water from
the surface and other geologic strata from mixing
with and contaminating groundwater through the

When pollution of private water supplies
from gas well activity occurs, it is often documented
as primarily stemming from absent or corroded well
casings on older or abandoned gas wells. That does
not mean that there are not pollution risks in newer
deep well drilling. Groundwater contamination can
result from flooded or leaking brine pits that contain
bottom-hole stimulation and production fluids from
drilling activities.

In the event of these types of mishaps and
negligence, pollution can still occur despite the
variety of regulations through DEP and the SRBC
and DRBC. When contamination does occur, it
should be noted that gas well brines are highly mineralized
and contain levels of some pollutants that are
far above levels considered safe for drinking water
supplies. As a result, even small amounts of brine
pollution can result in significant impacts to drinking
water supplies.

If problems with drinking water supplies are
encountered, state law requires drilling operators to
replace or restore water supplies affected by drilling.
Landowners should contact the drilling company
if problems with water supply wells develop.
Landowners who are not satisfied with the drilling
company’s response should contact the nearest DEP
regional office. DEP will investigate complaints
within ten days and issue orders as necessary to
replace or restore water supplies.

More information about water contaminates can
be found in related publications available through
the local Penn State Cooperative Extension office or

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