Hydraulic Fracturing Not Only Gas Drilling Worry

While controversy over the natural gas drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing has been swirling for a couple of years now, it seems other forms of natural gas drilling are also causing concerns. According to a recent ProPublica report, deep vertical drilling and exploratory wells, which operate in many states with limited regulatory oversight, may also pose environmental risks.

Next month, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) will convene an administrative hearing to discuss a ruling it made in June that companies that drill exploratory wells within its jurisdiction need the commission’s approval, ProPublica said. The commission’s decision to regulate exploratory wells is being challenged by the Northern Wayne County Property Owner’s Alliance, with drilling companies Hess Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co. joining as interested parties.

At the same hearing, the commission will also discuss whether or not 11 exploratory wells in Pennsylvania that have already been approved should be exempt from the regulation. The exemptions are being challenged by two environmental organizations, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability Inc. and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, along with Nockamixon (Pennsylvania) township, where one of the wells is located, ProPublica said.

The Delaware River Basin, which encompasses parts of Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, supplies water to several large East Coast cities, including Philadelphia. The DRBC was created in 1961 to address regional water conflicts, and oversees water quality and quantity issues in the 13,539-square-mile basin. Much of the basin sets atop the natural gas rich Marcellus shale, which has been at the center of a drilling boom the past several years.

Exploratory wells are drilled to test theories about where natural gas might be found. According to ProPublica, the DRBC’s own reports assert that natural gas exploratory wells have the potential to harm endangered species in the river basin. The environmental groups that have submitted testimony for next month’s hearing hold, among other things, that exploratory wells can be more dangerous than production wells because the drilling hazards in an exploration area are by definition unknown. They also point out that toxic chemicals are used in the exploratory well construction process, and that there is a higher risk of those chemicals moving into groundwater in the Delaware River Basin because of natural seismic activity in the area. The groups maintain that any drilling activities, vertical or horizontal, that take place in shale rock formations pose significant risks to human health and the environment.

None of the other parties involved in the hearing responded to requests to comment or to provide ProPublica their expert reports or other relevant documents.

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