Tag Archives: hydraulic fracturing

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.


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Colorado study finds higher occurrence of contaminants near fracking sites

A researcher from the University of Missouri School of Medicine has found evidence of higher occurrence of endocrine disrupting chemicals near fracking sites when compared to presence in control areas. The study was published in the journal Endocrinology.

LATimes report on University of Missouri study finding endocrine disruptors at fracking sites

Based on the information in the abstract, the study collected samples from drilling sites, the Colorado River, and a control site in Missouri. The drilling sites had elevated levels of contaminants, and the Colorado River showed a higher level than that of the control site in Missouri. To be fair, the study does not indicate that these endocrine disrupting chemicals had been released directly into the natural system from fracking sites, but merely points to the evidence as indicating the increase in industrial activity in remote sites present a greater likelihood of contamination. The study certainly verifies the presence of endocrine disrupting chemicals in the fracking process (something, you may recall, that Josh Fox mentions highlights in Gasland without making a qualitative link).

I want to emphasize here again: wastewater storage, treatment, and disposal are the most critical pieces that must be in place for fracking to be any kind of success.


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Exploratory wells coming to… western NC?

A nice summary courtesy of Carolina Public Press of the report DENR Assistant Secretary Mitch Gillespie gave to the Environmental Review Commission of the General Assembly last week draws attention to a an unforeseen plan to explore areas in western NC for natural gas. The report included a list of feasibility studies for fracking, which I presume to mean exploratory wells for core samples, though the article does not specify what the studies will fully entail. The point that raised eyebrows was the identification of a feasibility study in western NC:

the list included a rare mention of a site in the mountain area, identified only as a “precambrian rift basin” in “western NC.”

I admit that I have not really studied the geology of North Carolina in more than 10 years, but considering those precambrian basins are more than 540 million years, those formations have not changed much. I cannot imagine that those precambrian basins are anything but crystalline rock, and though they may be porous, any gas that was there is probably cooked.

Presentation slides from Mitch Gillespie to NCGA Environmental Review Commission

Thanks to a commenter on the article, he points to a nugget of policy presented to the Environmental Review Commission that has a huge impact on local jurisdiction:

…municipalities will not be allowed to prohibit fracking within their boundaries.

There has been a lot of attention given to Colorado after several municipalities there voted earlier this month to ban fracking. Clearly, the legislation in North Carolina has preempted that option for local governments. The state does have that power as they are the body to recognize legal standing of municipalities and counties, but this prohibition on localities is heavy-handed.


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“The End of Country” by Seamus McGraw: a thoughtful perspective on fracking

I finally read “The End of Country” and want to encourage everyone in the potential fracking areas of North Carolina to go to your local bookstore and buy this book or go to your public library and check the book out. Quite simply, his book is appropriately titled, and the content moves from historical, journalistic, anecdotal, and to personal, all of which provide a thorough perspective on life in a fracking area.

Back in March, I had the opportunity to hear Seamus McGraw speak at a forum at UNC-Charlotte, and even walked and talked with him there to ask for his insight. You may remember a post I wrote summarizing that forum, and then sharing Seamus’ advice to have a comprehensive plan around energy policy, energy use, land and resource use. He preceded his speech then with acknowledging he is neither for or against fracking, and has two wells on his property in northeastern Pennsylvania; the book is basically a 250-page explanation of how those wells came to be.

McGraw did his homework in writing this book. He describes the history of natural gas “mining” in nearby Fredonia, New York, in the 1820’s, and then the development of the “Drake well” in Titusville, PA, the first [commercial] oil well in the US.  And then he describes how slick water fracking was developed, almost by accident. Mitchell Energy’s development of fracking as a means to extract natural gas trapped in rock formations almost retired with an effective but inefficient practice; likewise, many petroleum geologists in Pennsylvania almost missed the primary source of natural gas, aiming at other strata around the Marcellus Shale.

The strength of the book comes from the in depth interviews McGraw had with people on the ground, starting with his grandmother. It was his grandmother’s property that he and his sister would inherit that raised the question of why someone would knock on her door to offer money for signing a mineral lease on that land. His research led him through the infamous town of Dimock. He spoke with land owners there, some of whom had not signed a lease, at least not initially. He also spoke with landmen. He heard from neighbors who sought consumer representation as a group. He spoke with Terry Engelder at Penn State. The following are some insights I’ve gotten from the book, and encourage others to share as well.

* The landmen are simply doing their job. They want happy customers and therefore willing to work patiently with property owners, but their job is to get leases signed for the gas-producing company, and get those leases grouped over the gas-producing formations without giving up too much in the process.

* The geology is vital to where a well will be located. This may seem obvious, but it is actually in the details of how the rock formation has been stretched and strained that influences the alignment of the pores where the gas is trapped. Identifying the orientation of these built-in fractures in the formation helps economize how the driller should directionally drill to extract the most gas with the least disturbance.

* One proposed alternative to fracking with water is to frack with a nitrogen gel: the nitrogen would dissipate into the atmosphere, reduce water use, and thereby eliminate the need to control large volumes of fracking wastewater. McGraw actually describes how the first attempts by Mitchell to do hydraulic fracturing relied on a nitrogen foam or gel, but these inconsistent results, especially in deeper wells. For us, though, the orientation of the Cumnock may actually be better suited for this nitrogen gel. The water resources specialist with DER has reassured that there is plenty of water in the Deep River to supply fracking opertations, but considering the fracking wastewater – both the return water and the produced water – has been problematic, anything we can do to reduce the volume of wastewater should be practiced.

* Unknowing consumers have gotten a raw deal, therefore we need very real consumer protection from the state. Those that signed leases early, such as many of the folks in Dimock, got a fraction of what property owners received later. The Marcellus gained recognition for a wealth of shale gas, but the early leases paid very little per acre, and only the Pennsylvania minimum for royalties. This resulted a gross reality of haves and have-mores, and still a lot of have-nots. We know the situation in North Carolina is such that many property owners signed a lease that is not beneficial to them – or of course, property was unknowingly bought and sold without the mineral rights. I do not know fo any course of action property owners may take to renegotiate their mineral lease, but this is exactly the kind of situation to create severe mistrusts within a community.

* There is an overwhelming feeling that fracking is a last resort. Yes, land owners have achieved financial security by opening their place to fracking. But McGraw writes about the perceptions of disparate voices that felt a common dread about the industrialization of their region. He wrote of unlikely alliances that formed to fight for consumer and environmental protection, and how they all recognized the land would never be the same. He also wrote about families that could no longer afford for the land to be the same – how farm subsidies have not risen at the rate expenses have and how communities were losing their next generation of workforce for the lack of opportunities: receiving a signing bonus for their mineral rights would let these families stay on their land.

I encourage you to read this book whether you are pro-fracking or against fracking. The book is informative and entertaining, and never do you feel he is trying to persuade you, the reader. The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines, Circle City Books in Pittsboro, and the Central Carolina Community College Bookstore should have copies of “The End of Country” available, and if they do not, ask them to order it. Lee County Public Library in Sanford has the book in its stacks.

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Ready or not, it’s Frack time! …or my take on SB 76

As promised, here’s my interpretation of SB 76, which has already passed the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Commerce Committee, and will head to the floor for a vote. This is not an exhaustive breakdown, and I’ve really only combed through the first version’s section on fracking and not examined the offshore stuff, but I have some issues of aspects of the bill, and especially with the discussion around it.

The “Domestic Energy Jobs Act” sure sounds nice, doesn’t it? That’s the name of the bill, and it’s a misnomer. By permitting fracking permits in March 2015, I do not think there’s a real mechanism to fund any technical training program in our community/technical colleges to have North Carolinians trained to work on natural gas development rigs. The number of jobs that will be generated by gas development, including direct, indirect, and induced jobs, is not a huge amount, as referenced in a previous discussion. And do the direct and indirect industries have any workforce development needs, communicated with local/regional workforce developers so that we can get locals employed? These networks take time and program development take time, and they have exactly 24 months in order to get the highest efficiency of employment. So right from the start, the title of this bill is misleading, and it especially reinforces the impression that the state is not already creating jobs around clean energy (even though we do have a budding solar/alternative energy industry).

Section 1 of SB 76 basically places the establishment of regulations with the MEC and DENR, eliminating the step of getting final approval from the General Assembly. I actually do not have a huge objection to this, though I would like to see some other outside party like the Environmental Management Commission chime in on proposed final rules. What Section 1 also does is establish a start date of March 1, 2015, when MEC and DENR may issue the first permit for directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing. This provides an end point for the ongoing work of the MEC in developing regulation, and they still have a lot of work to do to develop those regulations. I’ve pasted below the link to the video from part of the discussion the Senate Commerce Committee had this past Tuesday on SB 76, and want to address some issues I have with the tone of the comments there.

Senate Commerce committee disucssing SB 76

First, for Senator Newton to imply that DENR was in the practice of saying is grossly misleading. In my experience, DENR has always been diligent in working with upholding regulations set by both the state and EPA and coordinating with the public and utilities. DENR does the thankless jobs of ensuring our water and air is safe while facilitating industry, business, economic, and community development. Second, I really take issue with NC Petroleum Council’s Bill Weatherspoon’s message to the committee. He said no state could move slower and more responsibly and deliberately than NC has, and to disregard this “tactic” from environmentalists to “delay, delay, delay.” He said the exact same thing a year ago at the public comment session in Chapel Hill (though it may have been in Sanford) reviewing the DENR Shale Gas study. I hear several people saying we need to slow down to study this issue carefully, but I’m hearing it from local and regional leaders, affected landowners, and citizens with valid environmental concerns. I personally take offense to the comments made by Bill Weatherspoon and hope that elected leadership do, too: this state has no oil or gas industry, and we are developing rules and regulations from scratch, and doing so for an industry that is changing rapidly.

Sticking with those comments, let me next tackle what Environment North Carolina said is an issue of permitting underground injection of wastewater, supposedly facilitated in Section 4(b):

The discharge of any wastes to the subsurface or groundwaters of the State by means of wells is prohibited. This section shall not be construed to prohibit (i) the operation of closed-loop groundwater remediation systems in accordance with G.S. 143-215.1A or (ii) injection of hydraulic fracturing fluid for associated with the exploration exploration, production, or development of natural gas resources.

I’m no legal expert, but the way I read that is that fluids associated with the hydraulic fracturing process in the development of a well, and the production of that well are allowed to be injected, but not inject the flowback or produced water (what I will call wastewater). That being said, the fact that many people are reading this section otherwise means that this section must clarify the explicit prohibition of disposal of fracking wastewater via injection wells.

Back up to Section 2 which removes the ex officio seats on the MEC for the State Geologist and for the Assistant Secretary of Energy in the Department of Commerce. This is odd to me: it seems like these two perspectives would be valuable to the MEC. Senator Newton’s explanation during the Commerce Committee meeting that they present a conflict of interest doesn’t fully make sense to me, either, though he goes on to say that they could continue to sit on the commission without their seats being prescribed.

I need to come back at a future time after I’ve considered Section 3 more carefully, as this seems to really influence what some of the study groups are currently examining.

Section 5 will be a contested section as it sets a tax rate at the state level, with the lowest rate coming to the earliest customers. Quite significant in this section, it prohibits local governments from issuing taxes on gas development in their backyard, relying on the state severance tax structure to fund local governments most affected by gas development. Jim Womack expressed serious concerns over this proposal at the Local Government Regulations Study Group meeting February 15th. The design of the tax structure is to attract industry to come to the state en mass early. That doesn’t sound like a legislature confident of its resources, both natural and human, to want large, early investment instead of a well-paced development of an industry. Again, such action really calls into question the purpose behind this bill, let alone the name of it.


MEC Study Groups: Funding Levels and Potential Funding Sources

The Funding Levels and Potential Funding Sources Study Group of the MEC meet tomorrow at 1 pm in the Archdale Building, Raleigh. Here is the press release (and note the link in the last paragraph to the agenda):

RALEIGH –A study group of the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission meets in Raleigh Wednesday afternoon to discuss the possible costs associated with oil and gas exploration and development activities.

The Funding Levels and Potential Funding Sources Study Group meets from 1-3 p.m. Wednesday in the fifth floor conference room of the Archdale Building, 512 North Salisbury St., Raleigh.The public is invited to observe the meeting.

The group is gathering information on the possible costs needed to support local governments impacted by oil and gas operations. They are also addressing expected impacts to roads and bridges due to those operations, and how to offset costs to the state for administering oil and gas operations. Some costs could include state staff needed to review permits and conduct site inspections as well as the cost of maintaining roads in local communities where oil and gas operations exist. The group is looking into many funding-related issues and what other states with oil and gas programs have done to offset costs, such as putting in place permit fees to pay for a state regulatory program.

The study group reports to the North Carolina Mining and Energy Commission. The commission is required to report its findings, recommendations and legislative proposals to the Joint Legislative Commission on Energy Policy and the Environmental Review Commissionby Oct. 1, 2013. The Mining and Energy Commission is developing a modern regulatory program to manage oil and gas exploration and development activities in North Carolina, including the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

To learn more about the Funding Levels and Potential Funding Sources Study Group, check out the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ website pages devoted to the group, http://portal.ncdenr.org/web/mining-and-energy-commission/february-20-2013.



Thoughts on compulsory pooling and conflicts of interest

Much has already been commented on the founder of NC Oil and Gas being appointed to the MEC in the seat reserved for an environmental perspective, but I want to add my own perspective. Dr. Covington fills a seat that could have gone to one of a number of environmental experts we have in the state: take your pick of environmental scientists and researchers here in the Triangle. For someone who has a real estate license to be seated in that position triggers a lot of scrutiny, and rightfully so. His chairing the compulsory pooling group only adds to the suspicious appointment. And now, the Statement of Economic Interests of the MEC members have been published and Covington lists his role with NC Oil and Gas as one to educate and advise landowners in response to predatory landmen.

A look over the NC Oil and Gas website, where “local landowners [are] partnering with local landowners,” Covington’s statements are all fair. He has a point that should shale gas be developed, there should be a group of locals to represent the full range of their interests. But a landman is not a property owner’s friend, and their introduction on the website sure sounds like they’re landmen. Again, on their website they cite that a last line of protection for a property owner is in the mineral lease, something that RAFI and Humphrey stated at the Compulsory Pooling Study Group meeting on January 11th. The founders of NC Oil and Gas are not listed as registered landmen, so they’re not actually serving landowners in that role. Then what is that group doing?

Personally, I am concerned that as head of the study group he is wishing to bring in perspectives of the American Petroleum Institute to have industry perspective, but not include perspectives of mortgage lenders, real estate appraisers, and additional perspectives on takings law (though props to the NC Attorney General’s office Consumer Protection division for being part of this group). The industry perspective is predictable: pool leases together around the highest concentration of resources so drilling operation can get the most resources out for the least expense put in, and oh, yeah, this is of interest to property owners because the less drilling we do, the more it isolates the risk (on the surface). This study group really needs to examine a lot of issues in a short amount of time: I believe they are expected to have recommendations to the MEC in October (this deadline needs to be double-checked).

There is one more perspective that needs to be shared on this subject. After attending the two different study group meetings, I get a sense of weariness on the people’s part, and it’s not a weariness about water contamination. I sensed a strong feeling among people that they’ve been mislead, that the financial security natural gas development will bring was oversold, that the impacts on their property value was understated, and their rights as property owners are alarmingly compromised with this industry. That weariness needs to be voiced just loudly as those expressing concern about water contamination are expressing their concerns. A lot more to come on this.