Gas Drillers in Pennsylvania Trim Risks of Harm, Study Finds

Natural-gas drillers in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale reduced the rate of blowouts, spills and water contamination by half since 2008, according to a study based on state-agency actions.

State regulators issued environmental violations at 27 percent of the wells drilled in the first eight months of 2011, 54 percent below the full-year rate in 2008, according to the study today from New York’s University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute, which opened last month. Stronger regulations, tougher enforcement and improved industry practices helped trim the violations, researchers found.

Technological advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, have opened vast oil and gas deposits from North Dakota to West Virginia. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection reports more than 4,000 wells since 2009 were drilled by fracking, a technique in which millions of gallons of chemically treated water are forced underground to free trapped gas.

“The odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice,” according to the study. Pennsylvania managed “the brisk pace of unconventional gas development, while preserving the economic opportunity that development has afforded the community.”

Fracking Opponents

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups oppose fracking because they say it adds to air pollution and has the potential to contaminate drinking water. Shale gas has boosted U.S. supplies and driven prices to decade lows.

Drillers in Pennsylvania, which is developing its gas reserves, reported some high-profile failures. In 2010, Chesapeake Energy Corp., the second-biggest U.S. gas producer behind Exxon Mobil Corp., agreed to pay a $900,000 fine after wells failed in Bradford County, releasing gas into ground water.

Residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, blame Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for spoiling water wells. A final round of tests last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that no wells in the area had unsafe levels of contamination.

Of 845 incidents that caused measurable amounts of pollution, 25 involved major impacts to air, water, and land resources, according to the report. Of those, environmental impacts weren’t corrected in six cases, the study found.

John Martin, who formerly studied environmental issues surrounding shale gas for the New York State Research and Development Authority, is the initute’s director and helped write the report.

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