On November 18, 2010, Pennsylvania’s Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) unanimously approved new standards that will make natural gas wells safer. The new standards were approved just days before a 13,000 gallon fracking fluid spill in Penn Township, Lycoming County. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is currently investigating the spill, which happened at a site owned by XTO Energy.
Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Hanger praised the IRRC vote because the regulations will impose stricter standards on gas well construction, which will make the wells less likely to allow natural gas to seep out and contaminate water supplies or cause safety concerns:
When gas migrates from a poorly constructed gas well through the ground, it can contaminate water supplies or build up to explosive levels in water wells or even homes . . . These strong rules will eliminate or significantly reduce the problem of gas migration from poorly designed or constructed gas wells, as long as the rules are followed or enforced.
The regulations were deemed approved by the House and Senate Environmental Resources and Energy committees, and will next go to the Office of Attorney General for final review and approval. Once all reviews and approvals are obtained, the regulations will go into effect upon publication in the PA Bulletin.
According to the DEP press release, the new standards will require drillers to report production and waste volumes electronically and to submit detailed reports of the chemicals used in the fracking process. Additionally, operators will be required to keep a list of emergency contact phone numbers at the well site and follow a new set of instructions on what steps to take in the event of a gas migration incident. The regulations also include provisions clarifying how and when blow-out prevention equipment is to be installed and operated.
The DEP met with numerous oil and gas operators, industry groups and environmental groups while drafting the regulations to discuss them in detail. The DEP also utilized information obtained from public comments to the regulations, making changes which will improve well safety by preventing accidents. Some of these changes include provisions that:
- Require operators to have a pressure barrier plan to minimize well control events
- Require operators to condition the wellbore to ensure an adequate bond between the cement, casing and the formation
- Require the use of centralizers to ensure casings are properly positioned in the wellbore
- Improve the quality of the cement placed in the casing that protects fresh groundwater
Hopefully, the new regulations will make gas drilling incidents like the Penn Township one less likely to happen in the future. The well-construction standards come on the heels of the news that the Pittsburgh city council recently approved a ban on gas drilling within the city. Although Pittsburgh was the first city to ban gas drilling in Pennsylvania, the vote was just one of many recent moves to curb Marcellus shale drilling within the state.