Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Frack Fluid Spill, Maryland AG Lawsuit and Perspective

Scott Roberts is the former Deputy Secretary for Mineral Resources Management at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and as such has something to say about hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale. He recently offered his first blog post and offers his insight on Chesapeake Energy's recent well control failure that resulted in fracking fluid contaminating farming lands and Towanda creek, a tributary to the Susquehanna river.

As an interesting side note, the Maryland Attorney General has filed an "intent to sue" on Chesapeake Energy because of this accidental spill of fracking fluid that occurred in April in Leroy Township, PA. Why would the Maryland Attorney General file a lawsuit on an energy company operating in a different state that suffered an industrial accident, you might ask? Well, this is where circuitous logic comes in. Towanda Creek empties into the Susquehanna River which in turn empties into the Chesapeake Bay. Therefore, according to Attorney General Gansler, several federal lawsuits have been violated, including the Clean Water Act. We heard about the EPA and the Clean Water Act yesterday. Also, the City of Baltimore uses the Susquehanna as a backup source of water "in times of drought."
Gansler told the company the spill "may pose ...an imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of the population adjacent to the well site, recreational users of Towanda Creek and the Susquehanna River and to the environment."
It makes no difference that Chesapeake energy a) immediately suspended all Marcellus drilling until the figured out what happened, b) replaced the faulty equipment at the well once they discovered the problem, c) have tested and retested around the site to assess the environmental impact, d) are working with the PA Department of Environment and its investigation into the accident. A neighboring state, hundreds of miles away, will now sue a private company based on EPA regulations.

Brian Gove, senior director for corporate development at Chesapeake Energy Corp., said testing during the spill revealed "limited and very localized environmental impact, with no adverse effects on aquatic wildlife in Towanda Creek."

Testing in the Susquehanna a short distance downstream found "no effect whatsoever," he said. "We are confident there will be zero impact hundreds of miles away. The Susquehanna Rive and the Chesapeake Bay face many environmental threats; this event is not one of them."

From all reports it appears that, despite the fluids from the well reaching a stream, the stream’s ecosystems were not impacted. That is good news. But the bad news is that a well control failure is, obviously, a failure and, as such, should be prevented to the greatest degree possible. Some will say it never should have happened, others will say it can’t be fully prevented except by outlawing natural gas exploration and production.

What I say is that we need to need to face the fact that we are all human and ‘to err is human’. I say that the inalienable right recognized by the Declaration of Independence of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ by definition recognizes that not all pursuits will be successful and that, therefore, failure is also an inalienable human right. I say that, when those two premises are combined, perfection is not achievable. Finally, as a conclusion to this line of thought, that how we deal with the failures that occur is a more important measure of character than the much more commonplace finger-pointing. So, I say, it happened.

As I opined above, zero failures is the only acceptable standard. But this accident adds one more well to the perhaps 20 or 25 other Marcellus wells that have had problems or failures. So, the fact is that roughly 99% of the 3,075 Marcellus wells drilled from 2005 to April 22nd have not had a failure. That’s a really high success rate for mere mortals, especially given the complexity of the tasks involved in drilling and completing a modern gas well. It may not reach the standard but it certainly demonstrates to me a commitment by industry to do things right.

This sentiment is exactly correct. For those opposed to hydraulic fracturing, "zero failures is the only acceptable standard." It doesn't matter that the preponderance of the evidence supports the contention that hydraulic fracturing is a safe method of accessing previously inaccessible energy resources. It only matters that it is not 100% fool proof. Reminds me of "Hayward's First Law of Green Thermodynamics", "There is no source of energy, no matter how clean, that the left-environmentalists won't oppose if it becomes practical to scale up."

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