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Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling Boom Has Two Faces

Nov 3, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Throughout the Marcellus shale, farmers, ranchers and other landowners have become instant millionaires thanks to the recent gas drilling boom. But there are two sides to this story, as others in the region claim that hydraulic fracturing, the technique used by drillers to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale, is ruining the environment.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Thanks to the 2005 Energy Act, hydraulic fracturing is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals that make up fracking fluids. Some studies have found that fracking fluids contain toxic chemicals, including benzene glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols.  

The Marcellus shale, a massive rock formation that stretches from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, is often described as the nation’s largest source of natural gas. However, environmentalists have been concerned that fracking in the Marcellus shale could contaminate the waterways there, some of which supply water to cities along the East Coast.

Granted, the gas drilling boom has been a godsend to many, especially in economically distressed areas. According to a recent CNN report, some landowners who have signed leases with as drillers have received as much as $900,000 up , plus a 20 percent cut of the revenue of the natural gas extracted from their land. Towns at the center of the fracking boom, like Towanda, Pennsylvania, have seen hotel occupancies skyrocket, and landlords have been able to increase rents as drilling companies, many based in Texas, send personnel to work in the state. In an era of high unemployment, locals working for the drillers as laborers get $14 an hour, and backhoe and bulldozer operators earn $18 or more. Everyone has full benefits and gets overtime.

But not everyone in the Marcellus Shale has been so lucky. Pennsylvania has experienced its share of fracking fluid spills. State officials, however, assert these spills have occurred near the surface, prior to fluids being sent down a well. They insist no groundwater has been contaminated due to fracking fluids being injected into a well.

In other instances, the steel casing that lines the well holes has failed, allowing natural gas and other chemicals to penetrate the drinking water. In September, for example, Pennsylvania environmental officials ordered Chesapeake Energy Corp. to inspect the well casings of 171 natural-gas wells in the state after methane was found to be leaking from six wells in Bradford County.

Just last week, a Bradford County woman filed suit against Chesapeake over her contaminated well, alleging that nearby drilling allowed methane, ethane, barium and other harmful substances to enter her water supply. The plaintiff in that lawsuit is being represented by the national law firm of Parker Waichman LLP; the Law Offices of Michael Gleeson, based in Archbald, Pennsylvania; Neblett, Beard and Arsenault of Alexandria, Louisiana; and Becnel Law Firm of Reserve, Louisiana. The same group of attorneys filed another Pennsylvania lawsuit in September on behalf of a group of families in Lenox Township, located in Susquehanna County. The suit, which names Houston, Texas-based Southwest Energy Production Company as a defendant, also alleges that fracking contaminated the families’ water wells.

Perhaps the most well-known incident of fracking-related water problems in Pennsylvania occurred in the Susquehanna County town of Dimock. There, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps.

Incidents like that have led to calls for more regulation of fracking, including an end to its exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. While some states, including Pennsylvania, have beefed up some regulations, many advocates are pushing for federal oversight of the industry. Earlier this year, the US Environmental Protection Agency announced it would embark on a major study of hydraulic fracturing, and many environmentalists are hoping that will pave the way to tougher federal regulation.

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