July 28, 2010
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing blame it for spoiling water supplies. Proponents say the technology is separated from drinking water supplies by thousands of feet of impermeable rock. One possible link between those contradictory statements is well construction. In a poorly designed well, gas from below escapes into water from above.
That’s not the only way gas can migrate into water supplies, but it’s the main one the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is targeting with proposed changes to the regulations for oil and gas wells, recently released for public comments.
Many of the current regulations haven’t been updated since July 1989, according to the state. While Pennsylvania isn’t new to drilling — in fact, it’s been producing oil and gas longer than any other state — the current drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale is new.
The revisions would change how wells are constructed and inspected, and set guidelines for responding to gas migration and replacing water supplies spoiled by drilling.
“It was determined that many, if not all, Marcellus well operators met or exceeded the current well casing and cementing regulations,” the DEP said in its proposed regulations. “However, it was also determined that the current regulations were not specific enough in detailing the Department's expectations of a properly cased and cemented well.”
The new standards would bring Pennsylvania in line with other producing states, like Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, particularly for the amount of pressure allowed on surface casing, the shallow length of pipe that protects underground drinking water sources.
The standards require operators to inspect wells for pressure, corrosion and signs of escaping gas every three months and report the results to the DEP for five years.
If gas were believed to have migrated into nearby soils and waters, the proposed regulations would require the operator to immediately notify the state and begin an investigation, filing a report by phone within 12 hours and in writing within three days.
The proposed regulations also codify current case law on water supplies damaged by drilling. The regulations would require drillers to replace polluted water supplies to safe drinking water standards, unless the supplies didn’t meet those standards in the first place. It also requires drillers to pay for any increased operations and maintenance costs.
The Environmental Quality Board, an agency within the DEP, held five public hearings across the state on the proposed regulations and is taking comments through Aug. 9....
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