Natural or Not, Methane Gas a Problem
By Rick Hiduk
In defense of countless accusations against them, natural gas drilling companies have gone out of their way to distance themselves from blame for methane gas migration into private water supplies. Through cooperation with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), they are also taking adequate strides to alleviate former practices that may have resulted in well water contamination and working with homeowners to address an issue that has apparently existed in the area for as long as residents have been drilling private wells.
That is not to say that there have not been incidents where natural gas exploration and the vertical drilling process that precedes horizontal drilling and fracking directly or indirectly affected water aquifers near the surface, causing headaches for homeowners who had not previously experienced such problems. Although excessive methane gas is a serious issue, the instances related to gas drilling are few and far between when compared to the magnitude of drilling activity in the area, and the effects are usually temporary.
According to DEP officials, gas companies were not as familiar with the shallow and unstable surface topography of northern Pennsylvania as they could have been. The conventional techniques used for exploration and starting each new gas well had not created substantial problems for the drillers in other parts of the nation. While methane gas generally remains trapped in the first 1,500 feet of rock and soil, it was found to be easily disturbed, allowing it to spread out through more porous surface rock formations and into the water table.
“These sorts of migration incidents could happen—and have happened in the past—from drilling any wells, even drinking wells,” stated DEP secretary Mike Krancer.
“When a homeowner drills a new well, it’s not uncommon for the water in his neighbors’ wells to show some turbidity,” Chesapeake Energy public relations coordinator Brian Grove concurred.
Krancer related that, in western Susquehanna County and eastern Bradford County, areas where well contamination has been documented, the migrating methane gas came from “upper, shallow zones,” and not from fracking, which occurs from 5,000 to 7,000 feet below the earth’s surface.
Nonetheless, DEP took a harder line with drilling companies. Those companies, also facing a public and media backlash, reassessed drilling practices in the Marcellus shale and enacted guidelines that are, in many cases, now stronger than those levied by DEP. Chesapeake and other companies have become more proactive as well, taking water samples from wells in advance of drilling and allowing DEP to conduct the tests and issue unfettered results.
DEP also investigated claims made by Crystal Stroud and her supporters in the Granville Summit area of Bradford County and determined that water in the area had high levels of methane gas long before drillers arrived, thus bringing her case against Chief Oil and Gas Company to a standstill. Chief, in fact, sent out a press release on July 13 that maintained the company’s position that it was not responsible for the methane gas in Stroud’s situation.
“A thorough investigation showed that Chief Oil and Gas is not responsible for water well contamination or health claims of Crystal Stroud,” Chief vice president of public affairs Kristi Gittins stated in the release. Citing the DEP findings, Gittins continued, “Any water well problems in her well are a result of a pre-existing condition in the area.”
The official DEP report issued to Stroud highlights, however, the seriousness of the presence of methane gas and openly encourages all residents in Pennsylvania to have their water tested on a regular basis.
“Federal drinking water standard limitations have not been established for methane gas,” DEP oil and gas management environmental program manager Jennifer Means stated in the letter to Stroud. At any level above 28 mg/liter, methane gas is no longer water soluble and begins to leak out and expand in the direction of least resistance. “This may allow the gas to come out of the water and concentrate in the air space of your home or building. There is a physical danger of fire or explosion,” Means cautions. And, although natural methane gas can present a threat of asphyxiation, she added, “this is extremely rare.”
Levels of methane gas can fluctuate, Means continued, which is why she encourages vigilance on the part of the homeowner and recommends that everybody with tested methane levels higher than 7 mg/l equip their water wells with a working vent.
In association with DEP, Grove explained that water testing pursued by Chesapeake Energy determined that 25 percent of wells in the area detectable levels of methane gas, and 20 percent fail one or more of the EPA’s safe water drinking standards.
The fact that so few people in the area are aware of their poor water quality does not surprise Diane Seigmund of Towanda, who advocates on behalf of families who feel that their lives and their health have been compromised by gas drilling operations. Testing of water wells, she has noted, was previously done primarily to detect the presence of bacteria, not inert gases and heavy metals, such as barium.
Representatives of Talisman Energy initially expressed a willingness to respond to questions about methane gas migration but did not do so by press time. Concerns about methane migration and other forms of contamination addressed at the company’s website now seem outdated in the wake of evidence produced by DEP and other independent agencies that the threat of increased methane in drilling areas is valid.
An entry at the Talisman website reads, “This article will attempt to explain the relatively simple and time-tested technique that virtually eliminates any threat of harm to fresh water aquifers while drilling an operating gas well.” The next two paragraphs detail the multi-stage process of encasing the original bore and the main drilling bore with pipe and concrete. There is an implied assurance that the process of air-drilling, for which compressed air is used to power the drill bit, as opposed to the mud used during other stages of drilling, somehow prevents contamination. It appears that the concern at the time this piece was written was focused almost entirely on the fears of landowners that fracking fluids were being introduced in the drilling process at shallow depths.
Meanwhile, Chesapeake, Cabot, and Chief began to realize that the similar “time-tested” processes that they were employing might not be sufficient in what was previously uncharted territory for them. Each of the companies has announced improvements in the encasement process. In addition to possibly affecting the health and livelihood of homeowners whose wells have been affected, any failure in their methods becomes costly to the companies, both monetarily and from a public relations perspective. It is in the company’s best interests to get it right the first time.
“In cases where water has been impacted, DEP has taken strong enforcement action lately and will continue to do so,” Krancer remarked.
“Most often, the case of water contamination is not related to drilling activity,” Grove maintains. “However, Chesapeake takes very seriously any landowner concerns about their water supply and, when a question is raised, we routinely provide a replacement source of water as a courtesy, notify the DEP immediately, and begin to investigate.”
The current stance by Grove is indicative of a proactive shift in a public relations that has moved them closer to the “good neighbor” campaigns that they and other gas companies have touted since they arrived in the area.
A year ago, Chesapeake was making no such admissions of possible or potential contamination. And, while they were working with homeowners to address the issues of tainted drinking water, they sometimes did so under specifically worded contracts that absolved the company from any blame and precluded the homeowner from communicating with the media if they agreed to let the company do the work.
In a copy of a contract presented to a Monroe Township resident in July 2010 that was given to the Rocket-Courier by Seigmund, Chesapeake informs the homeowner that “the water from the well…is of suitable quality, despite the presence of methane.” Nonetheless, the company offered to install a vent stack on the water well if the homeowner drops all claims against the company and, in section 5 of the document, the “owner agrees to maintain the agreement…as strictly confidential and shall not disclose same to any other party, except as may be required by law.”
When questioned about the contract and asked if such legalese was procedure, Grove responded that, in extreme cases, a contract may be necessary to assure full cooperation from the landowner in terms of access to the property to address the problem. He denied that the “confidentiality clause” in the contract brought to his attention was in any way standard procedure. “However, they are often requested by landowners to protect their privacy and are sometimes part of the access agreement. All complaints are reported by us to the DEP and are therefore part of the public record, thus confidentiality is not a paramount concern for us other than to protect the privacy of the landowners.”