The world needs natural gas products, and the technology developed to extract it is remarkable. But the processes used can be dangerous to workers, property owners and the environment surrounding the well site.
Background On Hydraulic Fracturing In Pennsylvania
Horizontal drilling and "Hydraulic Fracturing" or "fracking" are a combination of techniques used by oil and gas drillers and operators to create fractures that extend from a wellbore into rock formations, including shale. These fractures allow the oil or gas trapped within these geological formations to escape and travel more easily from the rock pores into the production wellbore and, ultimately, to the surface wellhead for further processing and transmission to market.
In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus shale and, in certain locations in Northwestern Pennsylvania and along the Pennsylvania/Ohio border the Utica shale, are the organic-rich shale formations which the energy industry is exploring for natural gas, natural gas liquids and, in portions of Ohio, oil. The energy resources trapped in these formations are accessed and exploited by the industry through what are commonly known as unconventional deep wells.
Toxic Pollutants And Other Problems With Drilling
Unconventional deep well sites typically disturb at least 10 acres of surface land where the vertical wellbores are anchored. They are developed in stages and the entire process can take several months to complete. Preparation of the well site usually involves significant removal of topsoil and alteration of the natural contour and vegetation of the planned site. It often requires removal of trees. In addition to the well pad, which typically houses multiple vertical wellbores, surface disturbance can include the construction and maintenance of large water impoundments, which contain contaminated "frac" water that has been used in the fracking process at the drill site, and for other well sites that the gas driller may be operating in the area. The driller may also construct a fresh water impoundment to hold fresh water until it is used in the fracking process.
Access to the site requires the driller to build roads to the well pad and impoundments which create constant, large truck and heavy machinery traffic. All of these initial activities have the real potential to cause significant adverse impacts to the land owner who leased to the gas driller, and all land owners in the surrounding area and community. Some of these impacts include adverse water runoff and soil erosion problems. Others are increased noise, dust and pollution in the form of diesel fumes from the constant truck and heavy machinery traffic. The frac water ponds can leak, breach and overflow, causing the contaminated water to spill, migrate and pollute surrounding land and water supplies. These contaminated ponds often are aerated to suppress bacterial formation. The aerators cause many of the contaminants in the water to become airborne aerosols, which can drift with the wind and pollute surrounding properties with toxic, volatile organic compounds (VOCS) and other toxic substances.
After selecting and preparing the surface of the site, the drilling operator drills a vertical wellbore down to the depth of the geologic formation from which it intends to extract gas, known as the "Target Formation." It then changes the direction of the drilling and continues to finish the bore hole in a horizontal direction through the Target Formation (usually the Marcellus Shale formation) up to, and sometimes, in excess of 5,000 to 7,500 feet. Drilling operations generally continue twenty-four (24) hours a day until completed. Drilling rigs are large and are accompanied by numerous diesel engines to provide power to the site.
Hazards From Improper Frack Casing Installation
Upon completion of drilling the wellbore, the next phase of well construction involves installing the well casing, which is governed by the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act 58 Pa.CSA §3217, and 25 Pa. Code Chapter 78, §78.71, et seq., the applicable regulations promulgated by the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Resources (DEP) that drillers must adhere to when conducting drilling operations.
If the casing is not adequately constructed before the fracking process takes place, methane gas and frack fluids can escape from the wellbore and migration into surrounding freshwater aquifers. One of the principal purposes of the casing is to protect groundwater. "Casing" is a process where a steel pipe is assembled and inserted into a recently drilled section of a borehole and then held in place with cement between the outer wall of the steel pipe and the rock and earth wall of the wellbore. The space between the steel pipe and the natural wall of rock and soil is known as the "annulus."
The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act and DEP regulations require that well casings be adequately installed and constructed to protect groundwater supplies. 25 Pa. Code §78:83 requires the drilling operator to construct the casing in stages, whereby during the first stage the "surface casing" is installed once the vertical wellbore is drilled down to the depth of 50 feet below the deepest freshwater. The drilling operator then sets a steel pipe casing therein, and pours cement down the wellbore into the annulus.
25 Pa. Code §78:83(c) states that the wellbore is required to be "conditioned to ensure an adequate cement bond between the casing and the formation," and an adequate number of centralizers and float shoes are required to be set along the casing at 50 and 150 feet intervals to provide stability of the casing as it descends deeper and deeper into the borehole. The annulus is required to be completely filled with cement to surround and seal the annulus as well as the steel pipe to prevent migration, release or penetration of frac fluids, flow backwater, methane gas and other contaminants from entering groundwater aquifers and the ground itself.
Experience in the industry has shown that the seal between the cement, the steel pipe and natural rock of the wellbore wall is not perfect and often leaves what are known as casing "microanular spaces" — small channels through which gas and liquid can escape the wellbore casing especially when under pressure. Once the vertical and horizontal wellbore is drilled and cased, hydraulic fracturing generally consists of forcing a mixture of water, sand, proppant and chemicals, commonly referred to as "slick water frack fluid," down the wellbore at extremely high pressures up to, and if necessary, exceeding 16,000 psi. Its function is to fracture the shale of target formations and hold those fractures open to allow the natural gas and other hydrocarbons to escape and flow freely into the wellbore. Fracking requires the discharge of enormous volumes of "frack fluid," on average 5-10 million gallons, to complete a well.
Why Frack Fluids Are So Dangerous
The composition of frack fluid includes chemicals that may be carcinogenic and toxic, including, but not limited to, diesel fuel and/or other petroleum distillates, products containing volatile organic compounds and semi-volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), gelling agents, corrosion inhibitors, additives, scale inhibitors, acids, biocides and lubricating materials. Frack fluid that returns to the surface through the wellbore is commonly referred to in the industry as "flow back" water. In addition to the hazardous chemicals, frack fluid can contain radioactive and other materials including uranium, hydrogen sulfide, methyl mercaptan, methane, ethane, cadmium, cobalt, benzene, arsenic, barium, strontium, manganese, iron and other toxic substances which naturally reside in the ground, but are dislodged as a result of the fracking process, and then become part of the flow back water.
At least 25 percent of the frac fluid pumped into the bore hole returns to the surface as flow back water, within approximately thirty (30) days of the completion of the hydraulic fracturing process. "Produced water" is water that returns to the surface through the bore hole during actual gas production, which consists of flow back water and frac fluid which did not return to the surface during the initial flow back, as well as water that had been trapped in the formation prior to drilling or seeped into the bore hole during, or as a result of drilling. Produced water contains high concentrations of "total dissolved solids" and/or other naturally occurring contaminants, such as radium, barium and strontium.
Fracking Risks to Ground Water
Fracking creates a real risk of ground water well contamination and/or diminution to surrounding land owners. Two studies were published by geochemists from Duke University studying hydraulic fracturing in northeast Pennsylvania. One in 2011 entitled "Methane Contamination of Drinking Water Accompanying Gas-Well Drilling and Hydraulic Fracturing" studied 60 different wells in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, concluding that there is "systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction." They studied 81 additional wells and published a follow up in July 2013 confirming their conclusions. The same geochemists conducted another study of soil samples taken between 2010 and 2012 along Blacklick Creek near Indiana, Pennsylvania, where the Josephine Brine wastewater treatment plant treated and discharged millions of gallons of frack water into the creek prior to May 2011. The soil contained extremely high levels of radium and bromides, which the authors linked to the frack water.
One expert has reviewed well construction data kept by the DEP and concluded that 6-7 percent of all new deep wells drilled in Pennsylvania between 2009 and 2012 had compromised structural integrity of the casing from the beginning. This failure rate rises as the wells continue to age and produce over the next thirty (30) to fifty (50) years.
There are many underground pathways that methane gas and frac fluid can take to contaminate surrounding fresh ground water once it escapes from a faulty or compromised casing. Natural geologic strata, such as cyclothems, i.e., repeating, even layers of sandstone, shale, coal, and limestone rock layers, allow fluid and gas migration along horizontal planes. Coal seams can provide pathways. Abandoned oil and gas wells in the area can serve as vertical pathways for frack fluid and methane gas to migrate into fresh groundwater aquifers, including those located well above the bore hole.
Protect Yourself From Groundwater Contamination
If you receive your water from a well system, and if an unconventional deep well is being drilled and fracked within three miles from the source of the well water, you should get your water tested prior to the gas well being fracked in order to establish a baseline test in the event you experience problems with your water after the fracking takes place.
If you believe your groundwater well has been contaminated, you should immediately contact the DEP and the well driller/operator and report it. If you need legal advice, call the firm of Caroselli, Beachler, McTiernan & Coleman, L.L.C., and speak with David A. McGowan, Esquire, or William R. Caroselli, Esquire, to determine your rights and what legal remedies you may have to restore your water and/or be compensated for any damages or injuries.
Personal Injuries Caused By Fracking
Aside from damage to the environment and your property, fracking can cause personal injury. Explosions, toxic spills, wall collapses and injury caused by equipment have occurred. If you are a worker on a well site or merely someone living or passing by and are hurt in such an accident, you may be able to obtain compensation for your injuries and losses.
The law firm of Caroselli, Beachler, McTiernan & Coleman, L.L.C., assists people who have suffered personal injury or property damage. Our attorneys investigate the circumstances and strive to maximize the financial recovery of our clients.
Get Help From A Pennsylvania Natural Gas Attorney
Contact a Pennsylvania natural gas attorney at Caroselli, Beachler, McTiernan & Coleman, L.L.C., by calling 412-567-1232 in Pittsburgh or Western Pennsylvania, 215-792-6153 in Philadelphia or Eastern Pennsylvania or toll free at 866-466-5789. You may also complete our online contact form. Initial consultations are free and confidential, and cases are reviewed free of charge.
We understand that an injury or loss of a loved one can take its toll on you and your family, making it difficult to get to an attorney's office. For your convenience, we are available to come to your home, hospital or union hall to talk with you and your family about your rights under federal and Pennsylvania laws.