UB Study Released on Environmental Problems in PA Drilling

A peer-reviewed 52-page study released yesterday by the new natural gas institute at SUNY University at Buffalo (UB) finds that environmental problems caused by Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania were isolated, mostly minor and on the decline (a copy of the full study is embedded below).

The study analyzes the data from more than 3,533 Marcellus wells drilled since 2008 in PA by over 100 drilling rigs. The study makes the following conclusions, including assigning a percentage probability for how likely it is for a major environmental event to occur:

  • Of the 2,988 notices of environmental violations (NOVs), the majority (62 percent) are administrative violations or violations issued to prevent pollution from occurring. The remaining citations (38 percent) were in response to an event that impacted the surrounding environment.
  • Of the 845 incidents that caused measurable amounts of pollution, 820 were classified as non-major, and only 25 involved major impacts to air, water, and land resources. This implies that over the 44 months surveyed, there was a [0.7 percent] probability of a major environmental event.
  • Of the 25 problematic incidents that involved major environmental impacts, six cases did not have their environmental impacts completely mitigated.
  • Both the number of environmental violations and subsequent environmental events that caused some physical impact on the environment steadily declined over the past four years, in conjunction with action by state regulators. Notably, the percentage of wells resulting in a major environmental event declined significantly; an indicator that the attention of regulators was focused on the areas of greatest concern. The foregoing suggests that surface activity, rather than the drilling or development process itself, remains the greatest ongoing risk.

From the UB Shale Resources and Society Institute press release:

The University at Buffalo’s Shale Resources and Society Institute today issued a report, "Environmental Impacts During Shale Gas Drilling: Causes, Impacts and Remedies," which offers the first quantitative data review of Pennsylvania’s regulation of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.

The report’s authors—UB institute director John P. Martin, University of Wyoming professor Timothy J. Considine and Pennsylvania State University professor emeritus Robert W. Watson—examined 2,988 violations, from nearly 4,000 natural gas wells, processed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) from January 2008 through August 2011.

They found that 1,844 of the violations, or 62 percent, were administrative and preventative in nature. The remaining 1,144 violations, or 38 percent, were environmental in nature. The environmental violations were the result of 845 events, with 25 classified as "major" environmental events. The report defines major environmental events as major site restoration failures, serious contamination of local water supplies, major land spills, blowouts, and venting and gas migration.

The authors found that the percentage of environmental violations in relation to the number of wells drilled declined from 58.2 percent in 2008 to 30.5 percent in 2010. The number dropped to 26.5 percent during the first eight months of 2011. The report suggests that Pennsylvania’s regulatory approach has been effective at maintaining a low probability of serious environmental events and in reducing the frequency of environmental violations.

"This study presents a compelling case that state oversight of oil and gas regulation has been effective," lead author Considine said. "While prior research has anecdotally reviewed state regulations, now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices results in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year."

The authors also analyzed how the violations and environmental events that occurred in Pennsylvania would be dealt with by emerging regulations, such as those under review in New York. They found that the proposed regulatory framework in New York could help avoid or mitigate the 25 major events identified in Pennsylvania.

"New York’s current regulations would prevent or mitigate each of the identified major environmental events that occurred in Pennsylvania," Martin said. "It’s important that states continue to learn from the regulatory experience—both strengths and weaknesses—of others."

Watson concludes, "Remedial actions taken by operators largely mitigated the environmental impacts of environmental events. Only a handful of events resulted in environmental impacts that have not yet been mitigated."

The report was peer reviewed, a process of self-regulation to maintain standards and provide greater credibility, by the following:

* Andrew Hunter, a lecturer at Cornell University’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

* Brigham McCown, a former U.S. Department of Transportation executive and consultant with United Transportation Advisors.

* George Rusk, a regulatory specialist at Ecology and Environment, Inc.

* Scott Anderson, senior policy advisor with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Energy Program.

* Robert Jacobi, co-director of the Shale Resources and Society Institute and longtime UB professor of geology.

Announced by UB on April 5, the Shale Resources and Society Institute’s goal is to provide accurate, research-based information on the development of shale gas and other unconventional energy sources. The institute conducts and disseminates peer-reviewed research that can help guide policymakers on issues relating to hydraulic fracturing.*

*University at Buffalo (May 15, 2012) – UB’s Shale Resources and Society Institute Examines Violations in Developing Natural Gas in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale