Sep 21 2011

Crack Cement 2

Does Cement Crack? – Part 2

Industry Veterans Comment on ‘Proper Cementing’

Is it a Panecea to Safe Shale Gas Extraction?

New York State government appears ready to open the door to shale gas extraction.  In July, Governor Cuomo’s Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), Joe Martens, said the key to safe extraction of natural gas was proper cementing and a third layer of casing or steel pipe down the well bore.

He promised the world:  “We are going to do this safely.”

This is what he said (emphasis added):

“Gas migration is the problem. … Poor cementing jobs were implicated in a lot of those cases [in Pennsylvania] where people ended up with gas in their [water] wells.  We think that with proper cementing and this additional layer of casing, that problem will be essentially solved.”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

 Meanwhile, industry leader Schlumberger warns (emphasis added):

“Despite recent advances in the cementing of oil and gas wells, many of today’s wells are at risk. … The environmental impact of contaminating a single fresh water aquifer is extremely serious.”2

Other experts caution that cementing an oil or gas well is “an inherently uncertain process.”3

Gas Exec on Ineffective Well Design & Cementing

The Executive VP of North American Operations for Talisman Energy, Paul Smith, recently addressed the first “Shale Gas Insight” conference of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group of 40 U.S. and foreign gas and oil companies.

Among other points, he said (emphasis added), “However, industry must recognize that reported cases of gas migration into water tables can occur as the result of ineffective well design and cementing practices.”4

The key question is whether New York State has identified the panecea to safe extraction of shale gas — between the third layer of casing and proper cementing.

New York State’s plan for proper cementing and an additional layer of casing (steel pipe) can be found on pages 7-49 to 7-55 in chapter 7 (“Mitigation Measures”) of its Revised Draft SGEIS (September 2011) at this link:

James “Chip” Northrup spent more than 30 years in the energy business, starting at ARCO then becoming an owner, operator, and investor in offshore and onshore drilling rigs, plus oil and gas projects in Texas and New Mexico.

‘No Statistical Evidence’ That 3rd Casing Works

When asked for his assessment, including whether this third casing is unique in any way and might contribute to safer gas extraction, he replied:

“A third string (between the surface casing and production casing) is not new, nor will it ‘solve’ gas migration into an aquifer.  Simply put, a third string is not a panacea.  There is no statistical evidence that it works at all.

“Even if leaks from the production casing are contained/retarded, gas can channel up on the outside of the outermost casings.  So you could have 5 casings (some Pennsylvania wells already do), and still get gas migration up into groundwater

“Pressure gradients are funny that way.  So are dissimilar rates of expansion/contraction between steel tubing and concrete.  And imperfect bonds between concrete casings and the surrounding rocks.  All these imperfections enable gas to channel into groundwater.”


Dale Henry is a petroleum engineer with 50 years experience in the oil and gas industry around the world.  He ran three times as a reform candidate for the Railroad Commission of Texas, the agency charged with regulating the energy industry in that state.

In response to this writer’s inquiry, Henry said that the third casing or pipe is not unique in the industry.  In fact, the “depth of the well may require more than one intermediate casing string.”

He cautiously applauded the fact that:  “Some folks with responsibility (I hope) have stepped forward to address the real problem.  Stop the possibility of gas migration before it can start.”

According to Henry, “Safe extraction of shale gas can be easily achieved (with money) by doing two steps:

  • Eliminate ‘poor cementing jobs,’ and
  • Require one or more extra strings of casing (depends on the well depth).”

Note that he said “eliminate” poor cementing jobs, not reduce or mitigate.

‘Maybe Truth Costs Too Much’

Henry also added a third element – money.  “It all deals with money,” Henry notes.  “Maybe the truth costs too much.  Producers are in the business to make money, not spend money if they don’t have to.”

Jerry Lobdill is a retired physicist and chemical engineer in Fort Worth, Texas, who has studied the technology of horizontal gas drilling.  He knows Dale Henry and has had long conversations with him on drilling issues.

He expanded on the money issue.  “Drilling rigs are expensive.  The cost-per-minute to have one on the drilling site is so huge that it dominates decision making during drilling and completion.”

Proper mixing, pumping and curing cement is time consuming, during which the drilling rig is idled.  According to Lobdill, “Wells are drilled and cemented improperly everyday, everywhere,” because of pressure not to delay drilling.

New York State’s DEC has a two-page fact sheet on “What We Learned From Pennsylvania.”  As the second paragraph notes:5

“DEC did not restrict its review to that one incident [LeRoy Township in Bradford County, PA].  DEC staff studied incidents throughout Pennsylvania where problems occurred to assess their causes and identify solutions.”

First of all, DEC is to be saluted for going on site in Pennsylvania to do primary research on causes and possible solutions.  This is necessary but not sufficient given the fact that the energy industry intends to export to northeastern states its behavior and practices from shale gas regions like the Barnett in Texas.

Anecdotes vs. Quantitative Research

It is important for states like New York to move immediately from qualitative research to quantitative research on environmental success/failure rates of drilling practices, including “proper cementing.”

A spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) confirmed that the regulator’s “Oil and Gas East Region does not have statistics or a database regarding the failure rate of cement jobs in drilling operations.  The Oil and Gas East Region is not aware of any source for such information.”

I contacted the American Petroleum Institute to inquire whether it had such a data base or knew of one.  To date I’ve had no response to e-mail and phone inquiries.

New York State doesn’t appear to have such a quantitative data base – yet government officials are telling citizens, “We are going to do this safely.”1

Forget promises.  Look at track records.  Where are the stats on the success/failure rate of drilling practices such as proper cementing.  As the industry, itself, tells us:

“Despite recent advances in the cementing of oil and gas wells, many of today’s wells are at risk. … The environmental impact of contaminating a single fresh water aquifer is extremely serious.”2

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for public comments on New York State’s revised Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS).  Written comments will be accepted through the close of business December 12, 2011.  The DEC’s preferred method of receiving comments is via its web-based comment form.  For more information, see footnote #6 below under Links & Resources.6

 Links & Resources

1 Webcast of DEC Commissioner Joe Martens press conference, July 1, 2011

2 Schlumberger book (from the introduction) – Well Cementing, Second Edition, 2006 by Eric B. Nelson (and others).

3 National Commission on BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill And Offshore Drilling – official website where you can download the final report and other documents:

The Inherently Uncertain Cementing Process – Chapter Four, p. 99.  See also pp. 99-103 which goes into detail about “The Cementing Design:  Critical Decision For A Fragile Formation” and much more.

4 Responsible Shale Gas Development – Speech delivered by Paul Smith, EVP of North American Operations, Talisman Energy Inc. to Marcellus Shale Coalition’s 2011 Shale Gas Insight Conference, Philadelphia, PA, September 8, 2011 (p. 3)

5 NYS Department of Environmental Conservation – What We Learned From Pennsylvania – the following link also offers a downloadable pdf file of the document.

6 Public Comments should be made by December 12, 2011 on the revised Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS).  Following are good sources for information.

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation:  Revised Draft SGEIS (September 2011)

In addition, check out this helpful guide in the form of a volunteer Wiki website, hosted by the Center for Media and Democracy.  It offers a detailed but user friendly guide for the lay person to understand, analyze and respond to the SGEIS document.  You’ll find analyses by many knowledgeable folks including Chip Northrup, energy industry investor, and Lou Allstadt, former Executive VP of Mobil Oil Corporation:

Among other issues, the website offers comments on “mitigation” measures including the use of a new third cement casing:

NOTE:  This article is cross-posted on the Accountability Central website at this link:   Accountability Central is part of the Governance & Accountability Institute, Inc.


2 Responses

  1. Kim Feil Says:

    Thanks for this informative article…everybody should send this link to their council people.

  2. Southwest is not safe from TIGHT GAS | Says:

    [...] to offer you on the “life” of concrete in casings – into the future. Not much – not yet.   Stay alert – Margaret River.   Brent Watson This entry was posted in Uncategorized. [...]

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