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July 9, 2014

Our Opinion: New study suggests problem with some state shale gas wells

NEW CASTLE — A recent study of leaks from shale gas wells raises more questions than it answers.

And because of the growing presence of shale gas wells in Pennsylvania, it’s essential that both government and industry provide clarity. If problems with wells are not being properly addressed, the public will grow increasingly skeptical of shale gas operations.

At issue is a study of Pennsylvania wells headed by Cornell University professor Anthony Ingraffea. A report on research involving 41,000 old and new wells in the commonwealth appeared in a recent edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In short, this appears to be a detailed analysis of Pennsylvania wells with the results appearing in a highly respected publication. Disturbingly, one of the findings is that newer shale gas wells drilled horizontally — and using the process known as hydraulic fracturing — appear to leak more than older, conventional gas wells.

Specifically, older wells have a leak rate of about 1 percent, the study says. But wells drilled after 2009 have a 2 percent leak rate. The findings are based on inspections conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

According to the DEP, the rate of gas leaks peaked in the commonwealth in 2010 and have been on the decline ever since. They credit tougher standards for the casing of such wells in the state. At least that seems to be good news.

Yet the study does not explain what happens to the gas that leaks. For instance, does it go into the atmosphere? The water table? Or does something else happen to it? There is also the question of whether or not new inspection standards are identifying leaks that could have been missed in the past.

Meanwhile, representatives of the drilling industry are attacking the study and Ingraffea. They note he is an outspoken critic of fracking and suggest his study is a distortion of reality.

But other researchers — including those that have endorsed shale gas drilling — say the findings demonstrate there is still room for improved safety in drilling activities.

In this day and age, people should be used to back-and-forth claims and denials on issues presented by biased sources. Of course, such efforts do nothing to promote clarity or a better understanding of issues. That’s crucial when the matters involve safety and well being on a personal level.

While we are not experts on analyzing well data, the detailed nature of this study gives one pause. It definitely demands more research to allow the public a better understanding of what’s happening with these wells.

Perhaps the problem is already being addressed, as the DEP indicates. If so, that needs to be confirmed. And if not, state environmental regulators have a job to do.

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