On July 30, Gov. Wolf directed the Department of Environmental Protection to conduct an evaluation of how it regulates conventional oil and gas wells to prevent new abandoned wells, tighten review of permit transfers, review compliance with environmental safeguards and make recommendations for changes and actions, including criminal sanctions. Read more here.
The evaluation was outlined by Gov. Wolf in a formal statement published in the July 30 PA Bulletin and comes in the wake of the Governor allowing House Bill 2644 to become law without his signature. [Read more here.]
“The legislature’s action to withdraw the Environmental Quality Board’s authority to establish bonding amounts for the conventional industry provides an appropriate occasion to revisit whether the Commonwealth is doing enough to ensure that this industry is being a good environmental steward by preventing the abandonment of wells and meeting its obligations as a prudent trustee of Pennsylvania’s public natural resources for current and future generations.”
Below is a description of how each oil and gas well the industry drills generates and spreads pollution, creates wastewater that has to be managed for decades and imposes new liabilities on well owners and state taxpayers as the conventional drilling machines cut through Pennsylvania’s farms and forests.
Submit Your Own Issues/Concerns
Also listed below are just some of the critical issues that need to be addressed to avoid the real health and environmental impacts this industrial process has on people and the environment in Pennsylvania. Read more here.
This is not a complete list– not by far– but it’s intended to help DEP target its evaluation Gov. Wolf has asked for.
You can help DEP’s evaluation too by sending the problems you’ve had with conventional oil and gas drilling operations to DEP’s Oil & Gas Program email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oil & Gas Drilling Is Not A Clean Business
Do you believe drilling conventional oil and natural gas wells is a clean business? The real picture is not pretty or idyllic.
While the work is honorable, the people who run the conventional oil and natural gas companies have created an industrial machine that cuts through farms and forests– even Pennsylvania’s only national forest– punching holes in the ground, generating and spreading pollution, creating waste dumps, producing wastewater that has to be managed for decades to come and imposing legal liabilities for plugging those wells on well owners and state taxpayers with every new well they drill.
DEP reports 105 new conventional oil and natural gas wells have been drilled and 146 permits have been issued to drill more wells so far in 2022. The total number of conventional wells drilled in Pennsylvania now stands at 201,565, according to DEP records.
Imagine this process being repeated 201,565 times.
Drilling A Well
Each drilling site involves building an access road, leveling and clearing the well pad of trees or other obstructions and preparing the area for drilling.
Drill sites need water, chemicals, heavy diesel-powered equipment to drill the wells, compressor engines, storage tanks and waste pits.
Water, supplies, drill pipe, chemicals, equipment, fuel and workers are brought to the site in a caravan of trucks.
Since most conventional oil and gas wells drilled today are also fracked, that equipment and those supplies has to be brought to the site. In-fact, the first fracking in Pennsylvania was done on a conventional well in 1963 in Warren County, according to the industry. It did not begin with the unconventional shale gas industry. Read more here.
Diesel fumes, oil and diesel fuel spills, wastewater and chemical spills, hydrogen sulfide and natural gas leaks, dust from drill cuttings blowing into the air and across the ground [Read more here] and loud noise are all a routine part of the dirty business of drilling oil and natural gas wells.
What the conventional drilling machines leave behind is a trail of air and water pollution, wastewater spread on public roads and stored in tanks that needs to be disposed of for decades to come, contaminated soil, dirt access roads, cleared forests and a network of oil tanks and natural gas collection lines for the product it produces.
Since solid and liquid wastes are disposed of on-site and the wells they drill keep generating wastewater long after the rig is gone, each drill site effectively becomes a waste dump.
Drillers frequently caution landowners not to use or have cattle graze on these areas, even with “restoration.”
In July alone, 16 oil and gas facility sites with chemical, soil and water contamination had to be cleaned up under the state’s Land Recycling Program, a mix of conventional and unconventional sites. Read more here.
An oil and natural gas well is a hole punched in the ground hundreds or thousands of feet deep that produces thousands of gallons of wastewater that needs to be disposed of regularly for decades for as long as the wells are in operation.
Some have described this unavoidable byproduct of conventional and unconventional drilling as a well “peeing.” The wells have to do it and someone has to manage these millions of gallons of wastewater to avoid polluting the environment.
Each new hole punched in the ground is a new open-ended legal liability on the well driller/owner, or failing that state taxpayers, to maintain the well, dispose of wastewater, file regular reports on well integrity to prevent oil and natural gas leaks, account in some fashion for waste produced– solid and liquid– and how its disposed of and total oil and natural gas production.
Finally, if we’re very lucky, the well is plugged at the operator’s expense, but that often is not the case.
When a well is finished, hooked up and producing, it’s time for the drilling machine and all its related equipment to move to the next site and start all over again generating and spreading more pollution and more wastewater that has to be disposed of and more legal liabilities on drillers and/or state taxpayers for plugging.
Unlike other industrial sources of pollution, oil and gas drillers can pop up right next to you without notice or warning because public notice and an opportunity to comment is not required by Pennsylvania’s laws and regulations, unlike permits for other industrial sources of pollution.
Each step in the drilling process should be covered by practices, procedures and regulations that prevent pollution, but that frequently is not the case.
And even when there are regulations, they are routinely ignored. DEP issued over 17,000 notices of violation to conventional drillers since July 2017, according to DEP– two and three times the number it issues to unconventional shale gas drillers.
— Millions Of Gallons Of Drilling Wastewater Are Spread At Will On Public Roads: Reports submitted by conventional drilling companies say they dumped nearly 2.9 million gallons of drilling wastewater on roads from 2018 to 2021 [Read more here.] This production wastewater or brine is produced continuously for the decades wells are in operation. And the practice continues today in spite of the fact DEP said it was illegal and did not meet the requirements of the Residual Waste Regulations [Read more here]. DEP has formally declared 84 municipalities where road dumping occurred as “waste facilities” [Read more here.] and a Penn State study released in May found the wastewater contains pollutants in amounts that exceed health and environmental standards [Read more here]. Road dumping should be banned, just like it is for unconventional shale gas drilling operators.
— Drilling Cuttings Are Blown Directly Into The Environment At Drill Sites: DEP’s regulations allow conventional drillers to dispose of drill cuttings on each drill site by “dusting”– forcefully blowing cuttings in the air and on the ground around their sites [Read more here.] From 2016 to 2021 DEP approved 721 waste disposal plans using “dusting” involving an estimated 70,000 tons of drill cuttings per 1,500 feet of hole [Read more here.] On-site disposal of any drilling-related waste should be banned to end the practice that creates hundreds of waste dumps all over the countryside. In fact, DEP is taking another look at allowing the disposal of well plugging waste on-site. [Read more here.] DEP should also evaluate solid waste and wastewater produced by conventional operators to determine whether it should be classified as hazardous waste and require cradle to grave tracking of waste as recommended by the Better Path Coalition and others. [Read more here.]
— Drilling Wastewater Is Dumped At Drill Sites And Allowed To Soak Into The Ground: DEP’s regulations allow conventional drillers to dispose of drilling wastewater at the drilling site by pumping wastewater through dispersal pipes out over the ground surface until it soaks into the ground, as long as they keep it away from directly discharging into a stream. [Read more here.] On-site disposal of any drilling-related waste should be banned to end the practice of creating hundreds more sites with contaminated soil, and possibly groundwater, all over the countryside.
— Abandoning Wells Continues To Be A Pervasive Practice In Conventional Drilling: Abandoning oil and gas wells is a pervasive practice in conventional drilling. Between 2016 and 2021, DEP issued 4,270 notices of violations for abandoning wells without plugging them. [Read more here] In the first half of 2022, DEP issued 159 NOVs to conventional drillers for abandoning wells [Read more here]. State taxpayers are now on the hook for over $5 billion in conventional oil and gas well plugging costs. [Read more here.] DEP needs to aggressively enforce all of its regulars to catch wells prior to abandonment, including conducting a comprehensive compliance check of whether each company is complying with existing bonding requirements and other environmental requirements and block new permits from being issued to drillers with unresolved violations. Why allow more holes to be drilled and more pollution and new liabilities, until the existing problems are taken care of?
— Wells Are Routinely And Frequently Sold To Avoid Well Plugging Responsibilities: Conventional oil and gas drillers frequently sell and transfer well permits to other companies and even individuals to off-load well plugging liability. These transfers are typically not evaluated thoroughly by DEP, as noted in Gov. Wolf July 30 statement [Read more here.] A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on a lawsuit filed in West Virginia on this issue called it playing “hot potato” with oil and gas well plugging liabilities [Read more here.] Transfers should be evaluated to determine if the receiving company or individual has the financial ability to plug the wells involved in the transfer. The overall compliance record of both the original company and the company to which the permits are to be transferred to should be evaluated to see if it has any unresolved compliance issues. No permits should be transferred until those issues are resolved on both sides.
— There Is No Public Notice Or Comment For Drilling Site Permits For This Industrial Pollution Source: No public notice or notice in the PA Bulletin is required for individual oil and gas well permits before they are issued by DEP to let the public know where these industrial facilities will be located. Notice and comment should be required, just like for other permits, particularly because of the documented air, water and land pollution potential of these industrial facilities. In addition, any permit received for review by DEP should also be subject to an environmental compliance check first to see if the company has any unresolved compliance actions. No permits should be reviewed by DEP unless compliance issues are resolved. Why allow more holes to be drilled and more pollution and new liabilities created, until the existing problems are taken care of?
— Conventional Drillers Fail To File Regular Reports On Waste Generated & Where It’s Disposed, Basic Well Integrity And Production Reports: Although obvious from DEP’s Oil and Gas Compliance records, Gov. Wolf noted these failures in his July 30 statement calling for a review of environmental compliance by conventional operators. Much more aggressive enforcement of these requirements is needed. DEP has the data, it needs to use it to target compliance actions, including putting a hold on reviewing any new permit applications until issues are resolved, because with each new well creates new liabilities and pollution. [Read more here.]
— Waste Reporting System Needs To Be Audited To Ensure Accuracy: As documented by the Better Path Coalition, DEP’s waste reporting system has major flaws and errors. The submissions to the system by drillers should be audited for accuracy and completeness and reporting should be increased from annually to monthly like the unconventional shale gas drillers. [Read more here.]
— Most Conventional Wells Are Exempt From Any Well Plugging Bonding: Of the approximately 110,000 active conventional oil and gas wells in the state, an overwhelming majority were drilled before April 1985 and are therefore exempt from any well plugging bonding by law [Read more here.] Even for the active wells with bonding, DEP only has $15 per well on hand to plug them, according to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette [Read more here.] Major bonding reform is needed and necessary. Allowing House Bill 2644 to become law is an unfortunately retreat on this issue. [Read more here.]
— Conventional Natural Gas Gathering Lines Are Exempt From PA One Call Pipeline Safety Program: Conventional oil and gas drillers got an exemption in the last update of the PA One Call safety program to prevent construction strikes on underground utilities to specifically exclude 100,000 miles of natural gas pipelines from the notification program [Read more here]. There are more than 6,000 incidents of striking utility lines every year, about half involve natural gas lines because facility owners are not part of the PA One Call Program [Read more here]. The exemption needs to be eliminated when the law is up for renewal before 2024.
— Conventional Drillers Pay Only 0.4% Of The Cost To Regulate Their Operations: In February, DEP told the Environmental Board fees on conventional oil and gas well permits brought in only $46,100 of the $10,658,816 it cost the agency to regulate conventional operators in FY 2020-21, which means conventional drillers only pay for 0.4 percent of the cost of regulating their industry; the unconventional industry pays the remainder and their costs. [Read more here] Permit review fees should be increased to cover at least 50 percent of taxpayer cost for this program.
— Conventional Drillers Want Exemption From Natural Gas Leak Reduction Regulations: DEP has determined conventional facilities cause 80 percent of natural gas leaks for all oil and gas facilities in the state, and unconventional shale gas facilities account for 20 percent. [Read more here.] The conventional oil and gas industry is lobbying hard against a final Environmental Quality Board regulation that must be finalized by December 16 which would require significantly reducing natural gas leaks from their oil and gas facilities. [Read more here.] Failure to meet the EPA requirement by December 16 will mean the loss of at least $500 million federal highway funds to Pennsylvania. [Read more here.]
Submit Your Own Issues
You can help DEP’s evaluation by sending the problems you’ve had with conventional oil and gas drilling operations to DEP’s Oil & Gas Program email: email@example.com.
(Photos: Top Row: Photos of abandoned wells leaking oil and natural gas; Air sampler filter paper turned gray from catching dust from drilling operation; Typical modern conventional drill rig (PIOGA). 2nd Row: 2 views of dumping untreated conventional drilling wastewater on dirt roads; far right aerial view of conventional well drilling pads and roads carved out of the Allegheny National Forest. Bottom Row: Dust from drill cuttings being blown out of a well while drilling; oil leaking out of a conventional well; conventional drill rig carved out of the middle of a forest (PIOGA).)
— Centre Daily Times: Study: Drilling Wastewater On PA Roads Dangerous To Human Health, Environment
— Conventional Oil & Gas Operators Continued To Illegally Road Dump Over 580,000 Gallons Of Drilling Wastewater In 2021 [4.21.22]
— Conventional Oil & Gas Drillers Dispose Of Drill Cuttings By ‘Dusting’ – Blowing Them On The Ground, And In The Air Around Drill Sites [5.2.22]
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Laura Legere: PA DEP To Study Raising Oil & Gas Well Plugging Bonds [11.18.21]
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Anya Litvak: Lawsuit Alleges Diversified And EQT Played ‘Hot Potato’ With Abandoned Oil & Gas Well Responsibility [7.25.22]
— DEP To Report $4.7 Million, 17.6% Deficit, In Funding Oil & Gas Regulatory Program To EQB Feb. 15; Conventional Drillers Only Pay 0.4% Of Their Regulatory Costs [2.3.22]
PA Environment Digest:
[Posted: August 3, 2022] PA Environment Digest
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