A study released Tuesday by the University at Buffalo's new shale gas institute concludes that state oversight of gas drilling has been effective at reducing environmental problems in Pennsylvania and will prevent major problems in New York if the state allows drilling to begin.
The university-funded report examined almost 3,000 violations from nearly 4,000 gas wells in Pennsylvania since 2008. It found that 62 percent of the violations were administrative and 38 percent were environmental. The environmental violations stemmed from 845 events -- 25 of them classified as "major," defined as site restoration failures, serious contamination of water supplies, major land spills, blowouts, and venting and gas migration.
The authors found that even as the overall number of violations increased as more wells were drilled, the percentage of environmental violations compared to the number of wells drilled fell from 58.2 percent in 2008 to 30.5 percent in 2010.
"The data in this study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events, and the much smaller odds of major environmental events, are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice," lead author Timothy Considine said in a conference call with reporters.
The report says that in 2008, 170 shale gas wells were drilled in Pennsylvania and there were 99 environmental violations, meaning 58 percent of all wells drilled incurred some violation. In the first eight months of 2011, they say 1,248 wells were drilled and there were 331 recorded environmental violations, meaning 26.5 percent of wells had violations. They cite this as evidence of improved operations and regulation.
However, a main argument by opposition groups is that the cumulative impact of more and more wells being drilled must be considered. From that perspective, the study confirms that as more wells are drilled, the number of environmental incidents increases -- in fact, the overall number tripled from 2008 to 2011, even though the number per well went down.
Shale gas drilling hasn't been allowed in New York since the Department of Environmental Conservation began a review in 2008 to address impacts from horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses millions of gallons of chemically treated water per well to crack shale and release gas.
The first study produced by the new Shale Resources and Society Institute at Buffalo was released on the same day as a broad coalition of health, environmental, and political groups were staging a rally and concert in Albany calling on Gov. Andrew Cuomo to ban fracking. Industry opponents believe the technology poses an unacceptable risk to health and the environment.
All three of the report's lead authors have ties to the energy industry as well as being academicians, but institute Director John Martin said the study was funded entirely by the University at Buffalo with no industry support.
Martin is the founder of a consulting group serving the energy industry, academic institutions and governments and has worked on energy research and policy issues for the state. Considine is an energy economist at the University of Wyoming and has received industry funding for previous studies. The third author, Robert Watson, is professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University's oil and gas engineering program with 45 years as an engineer for a natural gas company.
The report says most of the major environmental impacts were "due to operator error, negligence, or a failure to follow proper procedures when drilling."
The last part of the study looks at how New York's proposed guidelines and regulations would apply to each of the 25 major incidents identified in Pennsylvania. It concludes that the underlying causes of the incidents could have been entirely avoided or mitigated under New York's proposed regulatory framework.
"This suggests that regulators are not only responding effectively within their states, but are learning and acting on the experiences of other states as well -- a positive sign for the continued successful state regulation of natural gas development through hydraulic fracturing," the authors conclude.
Environmental Impacts report http://bit.ly/JCwmc9