Methane Contamination Has Natural Gas Drillers on the Defensive

More people in northern Pennsylvania are reporting that their water wells have become contaminated with methane, and <"">natural gas drilling is a prime suspect. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, while they express doubts that any single incident of methane contamination is related to their operations, the incidents have drilling companies working to find a fix.

Methane contamination of water wells has long been an issue in northern Pennsylvania, according to the Journal, because of the region’s geography, and the presence of many poorly-constructed water wells. But some Pennsylvania residents living near natural gas wells say their methane problems began only after the drilling started near their property. In many incidents, their water has become unusable, and some can even light their water on fire as it pours from the tap. In one case detailed by The Wall Street Journal, a family had to give up maintaining a heard of dairy cattle because of methane problems with their well water.

Recently, some contamination incidents have been attributed to natural gas drilling. In May, for example, Chesapeake Energy Corp. was fined $900,000 by the state for contaminating the water supplies of 16 homes in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, with methane. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. settled a similar case affecting 19 homes in Dimock, Pennsylvania, for $4.1 million in December. Both companies insist it’s not clear if drilling was related to the methane contamination, the Journal said.

Northern Pennsylvania sits atop the Marcellus shale, a formation rich in natural gas. To access the natural gas in the shale, drillers must use hydraulic fracturing or fracking, a drilling technique that involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals deep underground to break up gas-bearing rock. Some environmentalists claim fracking can allow methane to migrate into water wells, the Journal said.

According to the Journal, drillers acknowledge that methane leaks are a risk of natural gas drilling. But they maintain that because the commencement of fracking comes later in the process, it has nothing to do with methane leaks. They also insist methane migration can be prevented.

To stop methane migration, drillers have started adding an extra layer of steel casing and to their wells, and are using new cement mixtures to better seal wells. They also test water supplies before drilling so they won’t be blamed for methane contamination later.

Scott Perry, head of oil and gas at Pennsylvania’s environmental regulator, praised the efforts o the industry, but told the Journal that that the state wants “to see 100 percent success” in preventing methane migration.

Property owners, however, are worried that drillers will be satisfied with much less than 100 percent.

“I believe that the technology is there,” Sherry Vargson, whose family was forced to give up its cattle herd because of methane problems, told the Journal. But she added: “I believe that for the most part the industry takes a lot of shortcuts.”

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