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September 27, 2012

Report raps state gas drilling enforcement

PITTSBURGH — Pennsylvania regulators aren’t inspecting tens of thousands of oil and gas wells even once a year, a new report says.

But state officials say they’re inspecting most new wells in the Marcellus Shale region, which is the right place to focus.

The report issued Tuesday by Earthworks, a Washington D.C. nonprofit, found that more than 66,000 active wells weren’t inspected by the Department of Environmental Protection last year, and that many companies cited for violations aren’t punished.

DEP spokeswoman Katherine Gresh said in a statement that the agency inspected 78 percent of newer shale gas wells last year, and that older conventional wells usually operate for decades without problems. She said that failing to note the major differences between old and new wells “is comparing apples to oranges and misleading the public.”

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but has also raised concerns about pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. Contaminated wastewater from the process can leak from faulty well casings into aquifers, but it’s often difficult to trace underground sources of pollution.

The Marcellus Shale formation exists across much of the state, and is the target of most new drilling in Pennsylvania. Fracking is required to release the gas from the shale.

Earthworks says the number of inspections don’t meet the goal of DEP’s own guidelines, even for new wells.

“There’s at least a quarter of all new wells that aren’t getting inspected. We still think that’s not good enough,” said Bruce Baizel, an Earthworks staff attorney.

Gresh said that a 1989 DEP statement on frequency of well inspections isn’t a law, just a policy, and that drilling companies also are required to inspect their own wells and report any problems. The 1989 document states that the agency intends to inspect wells “at least once during each of the phases of siting, drilling, casing, cementing, completing, altering and stimulating a well.”

Regulators contend that overall, water and air pollution problems are rare, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn’t been enough research on those issues. The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, and many rules on air pollution and disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking are being strengthened.

 

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