As a result of the legal challenge to DEP’s Chapter 78a Shale gas drilling regulations brought by the Marcellus Shale Coalition and court action following the initial filing, DEP cannot enforce the part of the regulations requiring operators to plug and monitor those wells they do not own or operate, including abandoned and orphan wells where they want to drill.
This Area of Review provision required operators to identify abandoned, orphan, active and inactive oil, gas and water wells within 1,000 feet of the proposed vertical and horizontal wellbores prior to hydraulic fracturing.
The idea is to protect against the migration or forcing of drilling fluids, chemicals, or methane into wells and geologic features in ways that could cause explosions and hazards to surface landowners and pollute groundwater and water supplies.
If wells are identified, the operator must tell DEP how they plan to mitigate any potential hazards from abandoned wells and other wells they may not own or operate.
Prior to the updated regulations, operators did some version of a pre-drilling review to find these kinds of potential hazards, especially after abandoned wells leaking methane caused the evacuation of a school and two homes in Armstrong County in 2008 and another abandoned well turned into a methane geyser in Tioga County in 2012. (See: Perilous Pathways: How Drilling Near An Abandoned Well Produced A Methane Geyser.)
DEP knows the location of only about 8,386 abandoned or orphan wells. (Map) There were about 325,000 oil and gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania since oil was discovered in 1859 and most were not mapped. In addition, there are an estimated 1 million private water wells in the state with about 20,000 added each year.
Marcellus Shale Coalition Challenge
The Area of Review requirement of Chapter 78a was one of the sections of the regulations challenged in the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s lawsuit on October 13.
DEP is now prohibited from implementing this provision to the extent DEP requires operators to plug and monitor wells they do not own or operate, including abandoned and orphaned wells, as a result of a stay ordered by Commonwealth Court on December 9 until the merits of the case can be heard.
The brief filed by the MSC said this provision of DEP’s regulation imposed an “unreasonable and unwarranted obligation” on operators to “require well operators to identify active, inactive, orphan, abandoned and plugged wells before drilling, to monitor certain identified wells before hydraulic fracturing, and to plug orphan and abandoned wells that an operator alters.”
The MSC said the Area of Review requirement is not authorized by a statute.
DEP Technical Guidance
To outline specifically how the Area of Review requirement is to be implemented, DEP proposed draft technical guidance early this year that has been reviewed by DEP’s Oil and Gas Technical Advisory Board at meetings in March, June and in November.
On December 7, the PA Environmental Council and Environmental Defense Fund submitted joint comments in support of the most recent draft of the Area Of Review Technical Guidance.
Implementing an Area of Review has been a priority issue for PEC since before passage of Act 13 in 2012, going all the way back to PEC’s first report on unconventional well development in 2010.
This preventative measure is extremely important in Pennsylvania which has hundreds of thousands of abandoned wells, many of which are unidentified and not marked on any map.
Operators already perform pre-drilling analysis to optimize well production. Conducting preventative review at the same time helps prevent communication with existing conduits that could bring gas or fluids to groundwater aquifers or the surface.
Area of Review is recognized as a leading practice by collaborative efforts including the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) and the Pittsburgh-based Center for Responsible Shale Development (CRSD).
Other states have already successfully implemented Area of Review rules or regulatory programs; it is essential that Pennsylvania follow suit, particularly given the prevalence of abandoned wells across the Commonwealth.
Marcellus Shale Coalition Comments On Guidance
The Marcellus Shale Coalition also provided comments on the technical guidance to DEP on December 7 despite the pending legal challenge.
The comments are largely suggestions for making the guidance clearer and do not dispute the need for this kind of review to identify potential hazards from drilling and/or fracking.
They also make recommendations on clarifying when and how operators are to communicate their findings to DEP, for managing the process of surveying landowners for possible hazards and for sharing possible hazard information with adjacent unconventional well operators.Next Steps
The guidance should be finalized by DEP in 2017, pending the outcome of the lawsuit filed by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
More information on the regulations is available on DEP’s Oil & Gas Rulemaking webpage. Information on abandoned wells is available by visiting DEP’s Abandoned & Orphan Well Program webpage.For more information on programs, initiatives and special events, visit the PA Environmental Council website, visit the PEC Blog, follow PEC on Twitter or Like PEC on Facebook. Visit PEC’s Audio Room for the latest podcasts. Click Here to receive regular updates from PEC.