Despite claims to the contrary, the recently released AP “investigation” proves that drilling for natural gas or oil has an excellent safety record. Moreover, it’s getting better, especially in Pennsylvania.
Let’s first set the broader context. This is not about hydraulic fracturing. It’s about well drilling. Drilling any well has to be done carefully—even (or especially) a drinking water well. Pennsylvania has 3 million citizens who rely on private water wells as their primary source of drinking water, but we remain alone with Alaska as the only two states in the nation that have no statewide technical protective standards applicable to drilling private water wells. As reported and documented by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, 40% of private water wells in Pennsylvania exhibit some level of contamination above federal standards from natural conditions. In fact, there are many wells in Pennsylvania that experience naturally occurring methane intrusion. Those wells, by the way, are quite effectively managed by their owners to mitigate the methane. On the other hand, there are strict technical standards applicable to drilling a natural gas or oil well.
Here are the facts from the AP’s investigation. The AP says that Pennsylvania has confirmed that, out of more than 5,000 new wells, at least 106 private water well impact cases have been reported since 2005. While even one case is one case too many, those numbers translate to a 97.9% plus success rate in well drilling. I say “plus” because, undoubtedly, of the 106 cases reported, there must certainly have been multiple reports about different private water supply wells that applied to the same, single unconventional well. The story is even more dramatic when all wells, conventional and unconventional, are considered. The number of all wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2005 is about 32,000. That translates to a 99.67% success rate for all wells.
It is also worth noting that a vast majority of complaints were investigated and found to be either without basis or unrelated to unconventional well drilling. Let’s take a look at only 2012 and 2013, during which time the AP says that a total of 898 complaints were reported. Yet, there have only been 106 total cases of actual impact since 2005, per the AP’s investigation. So the numbers show that at least 9 out of 10 complaints investigated by the Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) are determined to have no adverse impact. The actual ratio must be much more lopsided, however, since the AP only reports the number of complaints for 2012 and 2013 as compared with 106 cases of impacted private wells since 2005. Moreover, the raw number of complaints has been trending down in the last two years. This supports the view that drillers are improving over time.
Let’s not also forget that even in cases where there is impact, many times the impact is quite temporary, such as sediment, elevated iron, or turbidity. Impacts from methane migration are easily and quickly remedied, and the driller is required by law to do so. In my experience, I have found that remedies are effectuated very quickly. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency, after spending months and who knows how many millions of dollars in Dimock, PA, reported what the Pennsylvania DEP already knew—namely, that there was no health issue with the private water wells there from any parameter.
Complaints about “lack of transparency” are equally unfounded. Supposed “aggressive” efforts by the DEP to prevent the AP from accessing information were more about respecting the privacy of homeowners than anything else. The DEP has a quite transparent reporting system accessible on the Internet through its Oil and Gas Department Compliance Portal. Also, the AP got its information, didn’t it?
In conclusion, despite reports from some circles that claim the AP says the sky is falling, in actuality, the glass isn’t even half full—it’s 98% plus full, and the AP deserves credit for bringing this to light.