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EPA Looking More Closely at Marcellus Shale Drilling as Disasters Mount

In Texas, where drillers have sunk more than 13,000 wells into the Barnett Shale in the past decade, fear of the cancer-causing chemical benzene in the air above gas fields from processing plants and equipment has spurred tests by environmental regulators and criticism of the state’s safeguards. In Colorado, numerous residents contend gas drilling has spoiled their water wells.

The Marcellus Shale is 10 times the size of the Barnett, spanning 50,000 square miles, compared with the 5,000-square-mile Barnett. It is also three times thicker than the Barnett at up to 900 feet and is estimated to have a potential yield of 10 times as much gas (500 trillion cubic feet versus 50 trillion cubic feet).

Though the drilling rush into Pennsylvania is barely two years old, more than 3,500 permits have been issued and about 1,500 wells drilled, with thousands more expected. Environmental problems are already bubbling up: methane leaks contaminating private water wells, major spillage of diesel and fracking chemicals above ground, and fish kill in a creek.

A well blowout in north-central Pennsylvania last month spewed natural gas and toxic fracking water out of control for 16 hours. State regulators found EOG Resources of Houston had failed to install a proper blowout prevention system — taking cost shortcuts. The state fined EOG Resources, which was drilling the well as part of a joint venture it has with National Fuel, and a contractor more than $400,000. National Fuel was not involved in the drilling or operation of the well.

EPA summarized numerous reports of “water quality incidents” in residential wells, homes, or streams in Alabama, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming but said there was inconclusive evidence linking the incidents to fracking.

In the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, state regulators have repeatedly penalized Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for contaminating the drinking water wells of 14 homes with leaking methane and for numerous spills of diesel and chemical drilling additives, including one that contaminated a wetland and killed fish.

Even as Pennsylvania officials work to improve their regulation of drilling, the state’s environmental protection secretary does not want to cede authority.

“I’m not ready to turn Pennsylvania’s resources over to the federal government,” said John Hanger. “Right now, Pennsylvania has just about the very best drilling oversight in the country and we continue to keep working at it every day.”

The industry says it believes state oversight is sufficient and worries the new EPA study will lead to new and costly safety and environmental rules that would rob them of decades of profits.

In West Virginia, however, state officials concede they’re overwhelmed trying to regulate the Marcellus juggernaut that has added hundreds of Marcellus wells to tens of thousands of traditional, shallow gas wells.

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