First responders used cell phone cameras to photograph natural gas and wastewater spewing from the EOG Resources "fracking" gas well during the June 3 blowout in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. (Photo Courtesy of the PA Department of Environmental Protection)
Pennsylvanians are wondering if their state could become the next environmental ground zero after officials confirmed Tuesday that irresponsible drilling practices and a failed "blowout preventer" caused the June 3 blowout of a gas well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania. Well operator EOG Resources uses controversial "fracking" techniques to harvest gas from the massive Marcellus Shale reserve, where the state has permitted thousands of wells.
No one was injured, but the busted well spewed highly-combustible natural gas and an estimated 35,000 gallons of wastewater that contaminated a nearby spring and stream , according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
DEP Secretary John Hanger announced that an independent investigation confirmed that the incident was preventable and EOG Resources ignored industry standards by failing to install proper barriers in the well and hiring uncertified operators. Hanger also said that EOG Resources failed to alert emergency authorities until several hours after the blowout, which hindered the state's response.
"Make no mistake, this could have been a catastrophic incident," Hanger said. "Had the gas blowing out of this well ignited, the human cost would have been tragic, and had an explosion allowed this well to discharge wastewater for days or weeks, the environmental damage would have been significant."
John Vittitow, an experienced petroleum engineer hired by the DEP to conduct the investigation, made an eerie comparison to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the gulf as he described the failed blowout preventer that led to the incident. Vittitow said that EOG Resources only installed one pressure barrier during a well clean-out procedure, while industry standards call for at least two barriers in case of failure.
Hanger admitted that state regulations on well operations are broad and regulators would have to be "more prescriptive" to ensure that well operators use at least two barriers in the future.
Vittitow's investigation also revealed that the C. C. Forbes operators lacked industry certifications that are mandatory in most companies.
The DEP fined EOG Resources and C. C. Forbes a total of $400,000 collectively, lifted a suspension on activities at the well and ordered the firms to follow nine procedural rules in the future. When asked why EOG Resources' drilling license was not revoked, Hanger said that the order "had teeth," and explained the company has the potential to be a "first class" natural gas producer as the state seeks to benefit from massive gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale formation.
The Marcellus Shale, which spans hundreds of miles across Pennsylvania and New York, has become the battleground in a controversy over hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves pumping a cocktail of liquids - some of them toxic - into the earth to force natural gas to the surface. Proponents claim fracking is an efficient way to take advantage of the massive amounts of clean energy to be found in the Marcellus Shale region and elsewhere, but researchers and environmentalists blame fracking for hundreds of instances of water contamination in Pennsylvania and across the country.
EOG Resources operates 139 of its 297 active Pennsylvania wells in the Marcellus Shale formation, according to the DEP.
The public outcry against fracking and a Congressional mandate included in an appropriations bill last fall prompted the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to begin a massive scientific study on how the practice affects water supplies, according to ProPublica.
The EPA investigation, to be completed by 2012, could help push Congress to approve the FRAC Act, which was introduced into the House last year. The FRAC Act would allow the EPA to regulate fracking and demand that drilling companies reveal what chemicals they pump into the ground, information the industry often attempts to conceal as "trade secrets." ProPublica recently reported that 50 House representatives have co-sponsored the act since last year.