Tag Archives: Department of Environment and Natural Resources

Well contamination complaints point to fracking in 4 states: 3 thoughts

An Associated Press release is making the rounds in various media outlets this morning about well complaints in 4 states that seem to indict fracking as the source of contamination. Here is the article as shared through Yahoo News.

There are a couple items in the article that I want to call attention to:

One, it does not describe how a state defines a “complaint” or how the state compiled the data of these complaints. This may be a matter of semantics, but I want to point to North Carolina: if a private landowner has a well for his/her primary water supply, it is up to the owner to have the quality of the water tested via the health department, and if it tests positive for contaminants, then the local health department will notify the owner of that contaminant. Local Health Departments will keep data from those well water tests, anonymously, and I assume this article is citing such data. Note: Public water supply utilities, which are defined and regulated by the state, are required to publish a Consumer Confidence Report at least once a year to communicate water quality data, and also must issue public notices if their water quality has been compromised.

Two, I agree with Irina Feygina’s statement that…

…comprehensive information about gas drilling problems is important because the debate is no longer about just science but trust.

Regulators must observe data closely for patterns of contamination, and narrow potential sources of contamination from that data set. A private landowner’s well water quality test would not be available to the public, even if it simply states that water quality had been tested (i.e., no results published), but the health department would know where contaminants have been found.

This aspect of public trust in our regulatory agencies certainly raises eyebrows (again) as to why the state of North Carolina turned away grant money to conduct baseline water quality testing in the region likely to be open to hydraulic fracturing. And let restate, I have the utmost respect for the professional staff we have in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DENR does make a great amount of information accessible to the public, most readily available via a searchable map of various permitted activities.

And finally, it is worth noting the percentages of the contaminated wells that appear to point to oil and gas drilling activity as the source of contamination. Based on the information in the article, 4% of complaints in Ohio, 3% in West Virginia and Texas, and 2% in Pennsylvania were linked to fracking (or conventional drilling in Texas). I do not want to disparage anyone who has lost use of their well, but these are not high percentages by any means. The Penn State study cited in the article documents a 40% failure rate of well quality meeting federal standards (though this is poorly defined since the EPA and DHHS/CDC have different minimum contaminant levels for drinking water); I would bet many rural North Carolina landowners would find the same true of their well water. Nonetheless, given the results reported in this AP story, the gas industry must stop saying there has been no contamination in drinking water due to fracking.

-BT

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Sanford/Lee County talk of fracking impacts

I noticed this little piece in the Sanford Herald a couple weeks ago in which MEC Chair/Lee County Commissioner Jim Womack spoke to a Chamber of Commerce luncheon focused on public policy. I want to tease out a few parts of this, and include some letters to the editor int he same newspaper discussing what was said at that event and related concerns about fracking development in the region (and let me say kudos to those who took the time to write and submit those comments).

By November or December, seismic testing trucks known as “thumpers” will be seen around Lee County, Womack said. Preliminary drilling for core samples could begin by next spring or summer…

I borrow from what my good friend at Golder Associates told me about thumpers, enhanced by the description Seamus McGraw included in his book, these are devices that shoot a pulse into the ground and measures the sound waves of its echo(s). The different strata of rock will reflect the sound waves differently, allowing geologists to better delineate how deep and thick those strata are. These should not too invasive as firms may regularly use these to find groundwater. The preliminary drilling should enhance knowledge of the strata as well, not only on depth, thickness, and orientation of the rock formations, but also allow analysis on the porosity and chemistry of those formations. Remember I talked about the estimate on the amount of natural gas ‘trapped’ in the Cumnock Formation by the geologist at Clemson University, which he did via a “back of the envelope” calculation based on the dimension of the formation? Getting the details on porosity and chemistry will refine that estimate, and though those test wells themselves may be a minor nuisance, it is a valuable step to help clarify how much gas we really have, and how feasible it will be to extract it. Perhaps a good analogy is getting a biopsy. I don’t know if it is reassuring or not about the timing of the exploratory wells: DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie predicted back in March that such wells would be drilled in late 2013.

Keely Wood, a Lee County horse farm owner and fracking opponent, said five Texas towns have been left without water in the wake of natural gas drilling. She asked how Lee or Chatham counties would fare any different, and Womack responded that the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources did a study and found that in just half a day, enough gallons flow through the Deep River to provide for all the water local drilling operations would ever need.

Based on the formula that DENR used to calculate water supply, which I am paraphrasing from the 2012 Shale Gas Report, I believe the Deep River does have sufficient flow to supply water to fracking operations. The calculation is something like 20% flow during the lowest recorded 7-day period of flow. As we should remember too well, the drought of 2007 was beyond severe, and we have good record of that flow. If flow in the Deep River during that drought met these minimum standards, than there is sufficient water supply to support this industrial use. The supply of raw water for fracking does not concern me the way that storage, treatment, and disposal of “return” or “produced” water does – and clearly, others are concerned enough to voice it.

I am glad Keely Wood submitted a full letter to the editor after this luncheon to express items not fully addressed there – the comments, though relatively few, show how polarized our society has become, particularly how individuals gloss over nuance and go straight to categorizing individuals at end points of the spectrum. This is a void of leadership – and I must say, in my observation of Jim Womack during MEC and study group meetings, I say he has been very level-handed. But somebody needs to step in between to say that supporting an initiative should not be done by knocking down those with an opposing perspective.

A similar letter begs the question of how widespread the “riches” of fracking will be, and I couldn’t but think on that a bit more this morning. His insights deserve an explanation of how the fees and taxation of fracking will benefit Lee County as a whole. I thought on the back-of-the-envelope calculations (cited above) ranging from potentially $200 million to $5 billion: when comparing that estimate against the DENR projection of 378 wells in the Triassic Basin, that ranges from $530,000 to $13.2 million per well. Remember that the development of a well is approximately $3 million. Of course, each well would have different results, some bringing up much more than average resources, while others bring much less.

“I think you’ll see our median family income go up 50 percent,” he said. “I think you’ll see that instead of the highest unemployment rate in central Carolina, we’ll have the lowest.”

Given what we know of the situation in Lee County: the inequal holdings of mineral rights, the number of property owners bound to unfavorable lease agreements, the relatively short duration for drilling development (all 378 wells in 8 years), and the lesser period of time for high labor demands (not to mention the question of qualified local workforce for this industry), the community deserves a thorough explanation on how development of natural gas extraction will boost median family income and how unemployment will fall.

BT

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