In August 2017 Range Resources and the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) officially settled alleged methane migration from a well Range drilled in 2011 in Lycoming County, PA (see Range/DEP Lycoming Well Settlement: From $8.9M Fine to $0). That settlement caused “outrage” with anti-drillers back then, and continues to cause outrage to this day. Hence another story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dredging up the same old story once again, trying to make out Range to be an evil big corporation screwing over PA residents who suffer to this day.
Some brief background. In June 2015, then-Secretary of the DEP, John Quigley, slapped Range with an $8.9 million fine–the largest such fine ever levied by the DEP (see PA DEP Slaps Range with Record $8.9M Fine for Methane Migration). The DEP said a Range well drilled in 2011 in Lycoming County leaked methane since at least 2013 via an improperly cemented well casing, and the methane “contaminated the groundwater-fed wells of private water supplies, and a nearby stream.”
Range and the landowner where the well was drilled said methane was in groundwater supplies long before Range drilled the well. Range fought the action tooth and nail, appealing the determination and fine to the PA Environmental Hearing Board. In May 2016, the DEP quietly dropped the fine and the case against Range.
Antis like THE Delaware Riverkeeper, Maya van Rossum, were “dumbfounded” at the settlement.
What’s happened since that time? For one, the DEP still maintains Range was at fault. They sent a letter to several landowners supposedly affected by migrating methane in January of this year to let them know that their water wells have been affected by oil and gas drilling activity. The letter (below) doesn’t mention Range Resources by name, but that’s the implication.
A grad student from Penn State University has been studying the issue, and “suggests a methane plume is moving through the aquifer and causing cascading effects.”
Range continues to maintain their well is not at fault for methane bubbling up here and there.
The latest on this issue that won’t die, from the Post-Gazette:
Josh Woda, wearing fishing waders, trudged through sparse winter woods near an ice-glazed stream and pointed to a spot where the ice had curved into a dome the width of a salad plate.
Beneath it, methane gas rose from the stream bed as it had for seasons, in bubbles so frequent and persistent that it bowed the frozen water.
“If you broke a hole, you could probably light it,” he said.
Three years ago, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection dropped its pursuit of the largest fine it had ever tried to collect against an oil and gas drilling company — $9 million.
Regulators said the methane bubbling up in this stream in Lycoming County, called Sugar Run, came from a leaking Marcellus Shale well that also damaged water quality at a dozen homes and created dead zones in farm fields.
The fine was meant to send a message — to make it “clear that we take seriously our responsibility to protect residents and Pennsylvania’s natural resources,” then-DEP Secretary John Quigley said at the time.
But in 2016 the well’s owner, Range Resources, had become more cooperative with DEP’s directions to fix the well — even as the Texas company maintained it was not the source of the problem — and the way that the state had proposed the fine meant its legal foundation was rickety.
DEP’s reversal caused outrage. The outrage faded.
Eight years after it was first detected, the leak has not been plugged and deep gas is still finding a path to the surface.
New research out of Pennsylvania State University led by Mr. Woda, a geosciences graduate student, suggests a methane plume is moving through the aquifer and causing cascading effects: feeding bacteria that interact with other elements in the water, giving the water a rotten-egg odor, and turning stream sediment and residents’ plumbing fixtures orange.
Even as the years-long leak indicates a series of failures, mechanical and human, it has offered researchers a rare, prolonged look at how new sources of methane affect aquifers and the surrounding landscape.
It has also meant a drawn-out ordeal for the affected homeowners.
Nancy DeWire, a 76-year-old sheep farmer and recent widow, can describe a personal timeline: the day her family discovered bubbling in the creek, the day an oily looking sheen of iron bacteria appeared on the water in a dish pan, the day installers put a complex water treatment system in the basement at Range Resources’ expense and ran a white pipe up the side of the red brick house.
In January, she was one of seven area homeowners to receive a letter from DEP confirming the changes in her water were caused by gas drilling. She had been waiting for the letter since 2015, when she and her husband first noticed dead spots in their field.
“Is the whole field gonna die?” she remembered thinking.
Far fewer new wells are blamed for channeling gas into water supplies than during the early years of Marcellus Shale exploration, when drilling companies were first adapting to surprises in Pennsylvania’s complex geology. Their mistakes drew international attention to the risks of a new boom era for natural gas.
Some of those early cases, like this one, have proved difficult to correct. Examining them might reveal lessons about what can go wrong, how long the impacts might linger and whether some places just shouldn’t be drilled.
The Marcellus Shale is unusually shallow where the Range Resources well named Harman Lewis 1H intersects the gas-rich rock, at about 3,200 feet deep.
It is also notably slanted. Roughly three miles to the east, the Marcellus dips to 6,000 feet below the surface. Roughly three miles to the west, it rises to outcrops that emerge above ground.
Sandwiched rock layers share this plunge, which is also curved on the sides. Penn State researchers theorize that intersecting joints and planes exist along the arc where the stress of the bend made the rock layers brittle.
Those breaks could provide a stairway for gas to reach the surface, traveling along fractures, Mr. Woda explained.
The bubbling streams and dead spots in the DeWire field are near the crest of that underground curve, which helps explain how gas might have reached them as far as two miles away from the closest well.
In their paper, published in November in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers call this setting “geologically risky.”
Range Resources agrees the geological setting explains the presence of gas but sees it as proof that the seepage is unrelated to the company’s operations.
Finding the origin of a surge of methane is complicated.
Methane is the main component of natural gas, but it is also produced by the decay of organic material, as in swamps. Both kinds — the thermogenic methane produced by heat and pressure deep underground and the biogenic methane produced near the surface — are commonly detected in water wells in some areas of Pennsylvania as a natural condition.
But in the cases in which Pennsylvania regulators have determined that oil and gas operations have damaged water supplies — as they have 339 times since the end of 2007 — methane is the most common contaminant. A flammable gas, it can create a risk of explosion or asphyxiation if it escapes from water and collects in confined spaces.
The Penn State researchers identified chemical clues that the methane leakage is new — changes in the water chemistry that they hypothesize would have long ago been exhausted if gas had slowly been seeping up along the fractures from the depths for eons.
The researchers did not single out any specific well as the cause, nor did they do a forensic study to determine whether a well is leaking.
Although the Harman Lewis well is closest to the bubbling in Sugar Run, eight other wells drilled into the Marcellus along the same dip within 3 miles have received violation notices for flaws in their cement and steel casing. DEP has also conducted other stray-gas investigations linked to other companies’ operations in the general area.
A Range spokesman said the company does not believe the Penn State study’s conclusions are correct or that its characterization of the source of methane is accurate.
Along with naturally occurring methane in the area, some of the stray gas is from private drinking water wells drilled into or through shallow gas-bearing geological zones, Range said. The company prepared “an extensive response” and sent it to the study’s authors.
DEP, meanwhile, has directed blame squarely at the Harman Lewis well.
A suspect well and a fix gone wrong
Range Resources drilled the well in February and March 2011, and fracked it to break the gas loose from the Marcellus Shale that June. The well was never put into production.
The first complaints reached DEP in January 2012. Soon five water supplies along Green Valley Road were identified as being polluted with gas from drilling.
In April 2015, DEP found methane in seven more water wells, bubbling up in a stream called Greg’s Run two miles west of the Harman Lewis well and in the soil under the spots of dead vegetation on the DeWire farm.
DEP ordered Range to stop the leak that May. A month later, the agency rejected Range’s proposed solution — to connect the well to a pipeline and put it into production while monitoring water supplies to see if the gas dissipated—and threatened the $9 million fine.
Documents obtained by the Post-Gazette in response to a records request show regulators and the company locked in a tense, years-long negotiation.
Range insisted its well was not the source of the stray gas.
Although early tests showed pressure built up between the cemented strings of steel casing — a sign of gas intruding in the well’s layers of defenses — later tests showed the pressure diminished, indicating it came from “relatively low pressure/low volume” gas pockets encountered during drilling that had depleted, a Range lawyer wrote.
A DEP official, writing in an internal draft response document in October 2014, described evidence that “deep gas” had flowed around the bottom of every successively shallower layer of casing in the well.
“How can Range possibly believe that gas has not migrated away from the bore after traveling up through the fresh water aquifers and even deeper loosely bedded formations?”
In December 2015, Range ground down and removed 30 feet of the innermost and deepest string of casing at a depth of 2,510 feet and filled the pipe with cement.
The high levels of methane in water wells and the surface bubbling of gas continued.
So a year later, DEP directed the company to drill through the new cement plug. The plan was to allow gas to flow up the well to a flare that would burn for two months, with the goal of reducing the pressure of built-up gas.
The operation failed. Instead of reentering the casing, the drill bit swerved and bore a path along the outside of the steel barrier for nearly 400 feet, chewing up metal and cement.
DEP spokeswoman Elizabeth Rementer said the damaged section is isolated and the situation is not dangerous. Unless conditions change, the failed reentry will be addressed when the well is repaired or plugged in the future.
But permanently plugging the well “may or may not solve the problem,” Ms. Rementer said, so the state is not ready to allow Range to do that.
DEP is still investigating the specific defect it thinks is allowing gas to escape and which pathways the gas is traveling to the surface.
Greg Lackey, whose recent engineering Ph.D. thesis at the University of Colorado focused on indicators of well failures leading to stray gas, said flaring can be a remedy when a leak is suspected to originate in a well’s target reservoir — the Marcellus Shale, in this case. Flaring encourages gas to travel up the well rather than outside of it or through intersecting faults.
“If the regulator is saying they want to flare it,” he said, “then that is probably a theory they are working on.”
Range Resources said it “has been cooperative with the DEP since this investigation began and we have been responsive to each of their various theories over the past eight years –- including taking measures that we felt were unlikely to provide any further clarity.
“We have and will continue to provide expert analysis and timely responses to the DEP to resolve this issue, but we remain confident that Range’s single well is not responsible for the presence of methane in groundwater in that general area.”
Looking for an anomaly
Recently, outside researchers have moved their attention westward, over a forested hill from Sugar Run, to the far edge of the flat field on the DeWire farm where satellite images indicate spots of dead vegetation began to appear around 2014.
There was a crust of days-old snow on the ground on a freezing morning in early March, but tufts of grass in the odd spots were noticeably taller than the grasses around them.
“The first time I came out it was very dead,” Mr. Woda said. “The next time it was grown up very differently than everything else. It changes with the seasons very differently than the surrounding areas.”
Meteorologists had set up a monitoring tower in October — a tripod mounted with instruments for measuring methane concentration, wind direction and other data about the mix of gases in the air.
Lauren Dennis, a meteorology master’s student at Penn State, said the methane levels that have been recorded are comparable to what is found in a wetland.
But although a wetland is full of decomposing matter that gives off gas, this is a farm field, about 100 feet from a stream. And the gas detected in the air here is not coming from the breakdown of biological material.
The task this March day was to search for reasons why gas was sprouting here but not elsewhere.
Gregory Mount, a geophysicist at Indiana University of Pennsylvania leading the experiment, unfurled an orange electrical cord with spring-like notches that team members clipped to rods they were pounding into the ground, 3 meters apart.
Using a controller and a battery wrapped in blankets in a beverage cooler, Mr. Mount sent electricity into the ground through the rods in sequences over several hours.
Each element underground — rock, soil, water, gas — has a different signature based on how difficult it is for electricity to travel through.
The tool, an electrical resistivity survey, could yield information about the first 150 feet below the surface.
“We should see that interface between soil and rock,” Mr. Mount said. “And then hopefully we see those fractures in the rock, or some kind of anomaly in these areas where the gas is coming from.”
Across the field, Nancy DeWire was in her brick farmhouse, quilting, with the fingertips on her right hand taped to prevent needle pricks.
She and her husband, Bill, had lived on the farm for about 50 years. He died in August.
Over the decades, they had as many as 80 sheep and two beef cows. They’d plant hay, corn and oats. Mr. DeWire would plow at night after he came home from his day job in computer repair.
“He earned the money and I was the farmer,” Mrs. DeWire said. “He always said, if anybody wanted to raise sheep, first you had to have a good job.”
They started with about 118 acres but added roughly 30 more as a precaution: Their primary source of drinking water flows from a valley spring into a shallow well and they didn’t want someone to put a cabin or a septic system uphill.
“We were protecting our water,” she said. “It didn’t protect it, though, from the drilling.”*
As we began reading the article above, we recalled another stream where methane bubbles to the surface–located about 20 miles from MDN HQ in Susquehanna County, PA. For generations, families have visited Salt Springs State Park, lighting the water on fire. It’s well known you can take an empty 2 liter plastic bottle, cut the bottom off and hold the dome over the creek, wait a few minutes, open the top and light it. Lighting water on fire at Salt Springs has been going on for decades, long before Marcellus drilling came to the region.
To be sure there are differences between our example and what happened in Lycoming County. We’re not saying Range didn’t cause methane migration in Lycoming (although they themselves do say it). Our point is this: naturally occurring methane that migrates sometimes does so for no apparent reason, because of the presence of abundant supplies. Large amounts of methane, so much so it oozes out of the ground, is what makes a particular geography a great place to drill! You drill where there’s methane.
We see a lot of maybes, coulds and mights in the article above–not a lot of certainties. A lot of theories, not a lot of proof. We’re all in favor of continued research. If researchers can actually prove that methane is migrating from a faulty well–good! Please prove it. We’re all better off knowing.
*Pittsburgh (PA) Post-Gazette (Apr 22, 2019) – Years after record Marcellus Shale fine was dropped, gas leak continues in Lycoming County
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