Check out a variety of news sources for environmental-oriented stories associated with shale drilling/hydraulic fracturing, and you’ll find a variety of opinions, accusations and such, particularly in the public domain.
Many of them are far out.
Tales of methane-filled tap water from the kitchen faucet that reportedly catches fire when exposed to a lighted match are but one of many examples.
“There are not a lot of clear messages in the popular media,” noted Deborah Glosser, doctorate program student in the Geology and Planetary Sciences department at the University of Pittsburgh.
“The folks on the environmental side have their preconceived notions, and the industry has its own interests,” Glosser said. “It’s good to look at the data and decide for ourselves.”
She has looked at plenty of HSE (health, safety and environment) data in Pennsylvania, alongside her academic adviser, Penn State geology professor Daniel Bain.
Bain also is an NETL (National Energy Technology Laboratory) collaborator through the RUA (Regional University Alliance).
Glosser’s interest in the HSE data stems from her research project focusing on HSE incident reporting in Pennsylvania. The results will be incorporated into her doctoral dissertation – and will be the focus of a paper she’ll be presenting at the upcoming AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Pittsburgh.
She currently is funded by the NETL via Bain’s RUA contract, with prior funding from NETL as an ORISE (Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education) fellow.
“This is the first comprehensive study that’s looked at incident reporting in Pennsylvania over time and in the context of actual drilling,” Glosser said. “It’s still a project in progress.
“Since I wrote the abstract (for the AAPG presentation), the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which is Pennsylvania’s equivalent to the EPA, released more data on penalties,” Glosser noted. “Penalties are separate enforcement mechanisms from notices of violation (NOV).”
The difference between the NOV and a penalty is that the penalty carries a monetary fine, according to Glosser.
She noted the issuance of penalties declined between 2008 and 2011 during various drilling stages. Yet non-minor, or serious, NOVs increased during that time.
“This brings up the idea that maybe the inspectors are using more discretion over time,” Glosser said.
“We also see that as Marcellus exploration has become more popular, there has been more funding dedicated to the programs,” she added, “which has resulted in more inspectors being hired and more inspections being performed by the Pennsylvania DEP.”
In a recent feature story on drilling safety in the Marcellus, a leading business/financial newspaper noted that inspections of Marcellus operations more than doubled between 2010 and 2012, according to Pennsylvania DEP data, when the department doubled its staff of inspectors. Violations dropped about 50 percent during that time.
At least part of this drop was attributed to larger companies buying out some of the small drillers who, though often skilled at what they do, are not always adequately financed to implement the somewhat extreme safety measures needed.
These buyouts are rather typical of big plays, which often are triggered by smaller companies. The small entities essentially pave the way for their well-funded big brethren to move in and apply the latest and greatest technical expertise.
For example, when big-major Shell bought early-Marcellus-driller East Resources, it reportedly shut in the rigs for a couple of weeks to retrain the workers as a first step to improvement.
Following the takeover, Shell is reported to have averaged less than one violation for every four wells drilled.
DEP data indicate that small private firms and public companies that tally below $2 billion in stock market value are most often the ones cited for infractions.
Glosser noted that drillers often report their own incidents, and the DEP will send someone to inspect.
“When the drillers are self-reporting, the public complains less,” she emphasized. “In the years when the public is reporting more complaints, the drillers are reporting fewer incidents.”
The benefits of understanding the Marcellus HSE incident reporting include:
- Identification of engineering and operational risks.
- Promotion of public confidence in shale gas development practices.