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Pennsylvania Well Blowout, West Virginia Explosion Highlight Dangers of Natural Gas Drilling

Jun 9, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

The safety of hydraulic fracturing is being called into question again, following two drilling accidents in the past few days in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Officials in Pennsylvania have ordered EOG Resources Inc. (EOG) to halt natural-gas drilling in the state following a well blowout there last Thursday. In West Virginia, seven people were injured in a methane explosion at a well near Moundsville.

Both incidents occurred in the Marcellus Shale, a formation rich in natural gas that lies beneath parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Maryland. The area has seen the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing in recent years.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable. Hydraulic fracturing, is currently used in 90 percent of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells.

Energy companies tout fracking as a way of reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and polluting coal. But many are beginning to wonder about the impact the practice could have on the environment and public health. The major concern with shale gas drilling is the chemicals used in the process. Because the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, shale gas drillers don’t have to disclose what chemicals they use. According to the Environmental Working Group, fracking has already been linked to drinking water contamination and property damage in Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Pennsylvania well blowout occurred last Thursday evening, at a well operated by Houston-based EOG Resources Inc. in rural Clearfield County, about 100 miles north of Pittsburgh. At the time, a service rig operated by a contractor was in the final stages of completing the well and bringing it into production. The EOG well was one of four located on the same drilling pad at a hunting club in Lawrence Township, near Moshannon State Forest.

EOG said it appeared that the integrity of a seal in part of the rig’s blow-out preventer assembly was compromised, allowing pressurized gas and fluids to flow. If that sounds familiar, it’s not surprising. A blow-out preventer is the same piece of equipment that failed on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April, and led to the massive oil spill that now threatens the Gulf of Mexico.

No one was injured in the Pennsylvania blowout, but 35,000 gallons of drilling fluids were released before it was contained the following afternoon. While the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said that none of the fluid that escaped flowed into streams, they were monitoring the spill to determine whether any chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing seeped through the soil into underground water supplies.

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, questions have been raised about EOG’s response to the accident. The company called 911 and notified the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency immediately. But rather than calling the state’s 24-hour emergency response line, EOG left a voice mail at 10 p.m. with a DEP employee. As a result, DEP staff did not arrive on the site until 4 a.m.

In response to the accident, DEP has banned EOG from all drilling activities for seven days, and it will not be allowed to engage in any hydraulic fracturing for up to 14 days, The Wall Street Journal said. The DEP also banned EOG, which operates 265 active wells in the state, from completing or starting post-fracturing operations at any wells for 30 days.

The West Virginia explosion occurred on Monday morning. According to The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the well was operated by Chief Oil and Natural Gas, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The firm had hired a Texas contractor, Union Drilling, to drill the well, The explosion occurred when a Union crew struck a pocket of methane gas while sinking the natural gas well through an abandoned coal mine. A 50-foot-high flare created by the explosion is expected to burn for several days.

All seven workers on the rig, two employed by subcontractor BJ Tubular Services of Houston and five from Union Drilling, suffered burns and were taken to the West Penn Burn Center in Pittsburgh. Two remain hospitalized, but their injuries are not considered life threatening.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has started an investigation of the accident, and is considering possible responses. According to the Post-Gazette, responses could include ordering a halt to all drilling and fracking by the companies involved.

Investigators from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are also on scene. Union Drilling has had more than two dozen violations of OSHA workplace safety rules and been fined a total of $226,000 in the past five years at drilling sites in five states, the Post-Gazette said.


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