Will the rapid, unregulated expansion of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas give way to the next major disaster in the oil and gas industry? Three separate accidents in just one week signify that this could happen.
On June 3 a blowout of a Marcellus gas well in Clearfield County, Pa., sent a gusher of natural gas and chemical-laced drilling fluid 75 feet into the air. The gusher leaked wastewater for 16 hours, spilling an estimated 1.5 million gallons of toxic fluid. Campers were evacuated when the fluid seeped into a small stream in Moshannon State Forest. The well was owned by EOG Resources Inc. — formerly Enron Oil and Gas Co.
Precious hours were lost because a blowout control team had to be flown in from Texas. A virtual media ban on coverage followed the incident; a reporter who attempted to take pictures of the toxic flow was told he’d be shot.
On June 7 seven workers were burned in an explosion caused when drillers hit a pocket of methane in an inactive deep mine near Moundsville, W.Va. The resulting fire flared 50 feet high for four days.
The drilling operations were under subcontract to Union Drilling, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas. In the past five years, Union Drilling has had more than two dozen violations of Occupational Safety and Health Administration rules and been fined a total of $226,000 at sites in five states.
A gas line explosion on June 7 in North Texas killed one person and injured seven more. The resulting blaze could be seen from 30 miles away.
These are just the latest incidents stemming from the questionable process of using a chemical mix to drive natural gas from shale levels deep below the surface. The mix used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, contains more than 85 toxic chemicals, including known carcinogens. Yet state and local government officials across the U.S. seem more interested in the money to be made from gas well leases than in implementing regulations to safeguard residents.
Pennsylvania state officials allowed EOG Resources to restart drilling June 11. Clearwater County Commissioner Mark B. McCracken said the county still wanted a share of the gas boom’s benefits. Commissioners acknowledged that more blowouts were to be expected.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates industry in that state, has reported 102 blowouts of oil and gas wells since 2006, resulting in 10 fires, 12 injuries and two deaths. (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 13) Yet in Fort Worth, wells continue to be built in urban areas, often close to residential areas and even schools.
Upon investigating the natural gas industry, filmmaker Josh Fox encountered Pennsylvania landowners struggling for income in small, rural communities, who gave in to industry pressure and lived to regret their decisions. His investigation led to the documentary “Gasland,” which will air June 21 on HBO.
In western Colorado, Fox found a formerly rural area that had rapidly industrialized, with more than 5,000 wells drilled. Medical researchers from the University of Colorado conducted studies on the air and water and found acute problems as a result of toxic emissions from gas development.
In a March 27 interview, Fox described the pressure the natural gas industry has put on politicians to trade “a short term energy fix and money for the future of our water in America.” (NOW on PBS) More than 200,000 wells are proposed in Pennsylvania and New York state, with 50,000 in the New York City watershed alone, with no additional restrictions placed on drillers.
Fox noted: “I could take a car battery and throw it into a watershed and go to federal prison, but these guys can take the same chemicals and inject them by the thousands of gallons and they’re exempt.”
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