PA Town Takes Innovative Approach in Drilling Oversight

Instead of trying to regulate Marcellus drilling inside municipal borders, Benton Township (Lackawanna County), PA took a different approach when Southwestern Energy recently drilled an exploratory well. Benton hired an independent engineer to monitor drilling and construction of the well. According to township officials, the process has been “an ‘unequivocal’ success.”

The idea, supervisor Larry Seymour said, is "monitoring as opposed to controlling" the operation. "The issue really is getting the desired outcomes and avoiding unanticipated negative consequences."

Michael F. Pokalsky, a petroleum engineer and the owner of Blue Flame Energy LLC, witnessed critical procedures, including the installation of steel casing and cement that seal off gas and fluids in the well from the drinking water aquifer as well as pressure tests to ensure the strength of the cement barrier. All of those operations were completed without incident, Pokalsky said.

The engineer had no regulatory power but could have alerted state regulators if he had seen any problems. Before and after drilling began on Nov. 28, Pokalsky was given broad access to the site at all hours of the day. He offered the township information, explanations and peace of mind.

"I go out there for critical operations from start to finish so the town has their own witness and they know it was done properly," he said.

The township expects Pokalsky’s monitoring of the exploratory well to cost it about $5,500. An exact bill will likely to be ready for the Jan. 3 meeting, Seymour said.

The use of an independent engineer is a novel concept the township built into its conditional use approval of Southwestern’s gas well. The concept is modeled on the landfill inspectors and state-certified sewer enforcement officers hired by municipalities to monitor facilities within their borders.*

*Wilkes-Barre The Citizens’ Voice (Jan 2, 2012) – Benton monitoring of gas well called ‘the right thing to do’