Trust Promises or Track Records?
Government Regulators & Shale Gas Industry Promises
Not Reflected in Performance Record
Who Will Fill Gap? Citizens & Lawsuits?
Government regulators and the shale gas industry thrive on promises of responsible and safe drilling; but the actual performance record does not hold up to scrutiny.
New York regulators made a new set of promises following news accounts that Governor Cuomo will seek to lift what is effectively a ban on hydraulic fracturing in that state.
Commissioner Joe Martens of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), announced at a press conference on July 1:
“High volume drilling will be permitted on private lands but only under new rigorous and effective measures that mitigate the environmental impacts. We are going to do this safely.”1
The tool for this, Martens says, is finalizing the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). Once this is completed, it will be “codified into law.”
Like many regulatory agencies, the DEC has a track record of ineffective enforcement and protection of the public health. If you want to predict future performance, look at the track record.
For example, according to a risk assessment published by Dr. Ronald Bishop, a Ph.D biochemist:
“State officials have not effectively managed oil and gas exploration and production in New York, evidenced by thousands of undocumented or improperly abandoned wells and numerous incidents of soil and water contamination.”2
Track Record & Future Performance
How about a quick sampling around the country to reassure ourselves that nothing can go wrong … go wrong:
- A report scheduled for release this month is expected to reveal that 68% of the natural gas well sites in Fort Worth, Texas, leak. Sixty-eight percent.
- PG&E of last year’s fatal San Bruno gas pipeline explosion admits it over pressurized miles of gas pipelines in California in violation of federal safety regulations.
Texas is the icon for modern shale gas extraction. The current form of hydraulic fracturing with long horizontal drilling paths was developed in the Barnett Shale, near Fort Worth, in the late 1990s.
In 1996, the Railroad Commission of Texas which regulates the oil and gas industry there, conducted a “sweep” of wells in Wise County. “The sweep found that 114 gas wells didn’t have enough surface casing to protect groundwater and that records about the surface casing had been falsified,” according to a newspaper article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.3
In August 2007, the Texas State Auditor’s Office published its “Inspection and Enforcement Activities in the Field Operations Section of the Railroad Commission.” The audit report notes that:
“… wells on 46.6 percent of the state’s oil and gas leases had not been inspected in the past five years. This increases the risk that there may be significant environmental threats the [Railroad] Commission has not identified.”4
So regulators and industry have a track record of bad surface casing, falsified records, and nearly half the wells in the state were not inspected for five years.
Expected this month is a study of air quality around nat gas wells in Fort Worth, site of much urban drilling. The city has spent nearly one million dollars so far to have Eastern Research Group (ERG) conduct the air testing.
According to a published report, the company apparently “found leaks at 68 percent of the sites tested. They had expected 10 to 25 percent.”5
Sixty-eight percent of the wells leak.
These and similar references are found in an excellent summary of the environmental and health challenges of shale gas extraction, published in April 2011 by the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project. It is available as a downloadable pdf file titled, “Natural Gas Flowback – How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety.”6
As the report notes in its Executive Summary [p. 3]:
“… state regulators consistently downplay the risks, take sides with the industry against landowners, and respond to complaints feebly, if at all. … But when so many citizens across almost two dozen counties report similar complaints and symptoms associated with gas drilling, something is wrong.”
Shifting to California, remember the fatal pipeline explosion in San Bruno, California, last year? Eight persons killed, 38 homes destroyed.
Now comes news that PG&E admits “it misclassified numerous segments of pipe throughout the state … resulting in the pipes’ gas pressure being set higher than federal regulations deem safe,” according to the San Jose Mercury News.7
And then this: “Fourteen Pacific Gas and Electric Company workers assigned to inspect underground [electrical] equipment may have falsified records, claiming to check installations they never examined,” according to a report in the San Francisco Chronicle.8
California regulators, of course, are huffing and puffing about “serious safety repercussions,” but where have they been?
Meanwhile, back in New York State, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens made a telling comment in response to a question at his July 1 press conference (emphasis added):
“Pennsylvania has drilled thousands of wells. They’ve had a handful of bad experiences in Pennsylvania. And I think we’ve been able to isolate what the problems were and how we would correct them.”
A “handful of bad experiences?”
Perhaps as revealing is the response to the last question at the press conference. It focused on liability for water contamination; and it was answered by Steven Russo, Deputy Commissioner & General Counsel at DEC:
“As a general matter, if a gas company drilled a well and created harm to somebody else they would be liable. It would be like any other concept in tort law. It would be a private legal dispute. They could go to DEC saying enforce the law, pull the permit, things like that as to general enforcement; but if the person were seeking compensation then it would be a private lawsuit.”
Maybe, but does it suggest the promised “rigorous and effective” enforcement could be the responsibility of the property owner?
Walter Hang, President of Toxics Targeting in Ithaca, NY, probably knows more about the DEC’s draft Marcellus Shale Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) than anyone in New York, including the DEC staff. His assessment via e-mail is as follows:
“The revised draft SGEIS is dreadfully inadequate and provides less protection than PA requires for gas drilling wastewater discharged into publicly owned treatment works. That is shockingly unacceptable.”
He concludes that the current draft SGEIS must be sent back to the drawing board. For more information, go to the Toxics Targeting website: http://www.toxicstargeting.com/MarcellusShale/cuomo/coalition_letter
Meanwhile, never confuse regulatory and shale gas industry promises with actual performance.
Links & Resources
1 Webcast of DEC Commissioner Joe Martens press conference, July 1, 2011 – http://at.pscdn.net/008/00198/11/dec/0701/#
Preliminary Revised Draft SGEIS on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (July 2011); Horizontal Drilling and High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale and Other Low-Permeability Gas Reservoirs – http://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/75370.html
New Recommendations Issued in Hydraulic Fracturing Review – http://www.dec.ny.gov/press/75403.html
2 Chemical and Biological Risk Assessment for Natural Gas Extraction in New York – Report by Ronald E. Bishop, Ph.D, CHO, Chemistry & Biochemistry Department, State University of New York, college at Oneonta; Sustainable Otsego, March 28, 2011, see page 2 for the reference cited – Link: http://www.sustainableotsego.org/Risk%20Assessment%20Natural%20Gas%20Extraction-1.htm
3 114 wells did not have enough surface casing to protect groundwater & records falsified: “Texas Supreme Court ruling discouraged suits against gas drillers” – Fort Worth Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX) by Mike Lee, December 27, 2009. The original link is no longer live, but you can find the article sourced via iStockAnalyst at this link: http://www.istockanalyst.com/article/viewiStockNews/articleid/3740618
4 Texas Railroad Commission Auditor Report, August 2007, State Auditor’s Office, Report #07-046 – See page 3 for the reference cited; pdf file: texas_railroad_commission_auditor_report_aug2007
5 Fort Worth’s air quality study delayed – again, Star-Telegram – Opinion column by Mike Norman, June 30, 2011 – http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/06/30/3192463/fort-worths-air-quality-study.html
6 “Natural Gas Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety,” published by the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, April 2011 – pdf file: FLOWBACK-TXOGAP-HealthReport-lowres
7 PG&E forced to reduce pressure on misclassified pipelines – San Jose Mercury News, July 1, 2011, by Steve Johnson
8 PG&E says workers falsified underground inspections – San Francisco Chronicle, July 2, 2011, by David R. Baker, Chronicle Staff Writer http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/01/BUL81K5JGF.DTL
NOTE: This article is cross-posted on the Accountability Central website at this link: http://www.accountability-central.com/nc/single-view-default/article/voices-from-the-shale-trust-promises-or-track-records/ Accountability Central is part of the Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc.