Marcellus Shale Drilling Safety Concerns

Oil and gas drilling has become another environmental concern in recent years, which has been underscored by the 2010 BP oil platform explosion that resulted in 11 deaths and devastated the Gulf Coast with oil deposits. Much of the debate over continued oil and gas drilling has centered on the Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Field Formation, which extends from Pennsylvania through New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

The Marcellus Shale covers over 575 miles and has a thickness up to 900 feet. It has a natural gas reserve that scientists estimate could supply the entire country for two years.

Possible Risks

Unfortunately, extracting the natural gas carries environmental risks. Recently, blowouts only days apart rocked two Marcellus Shale wells. One blowout occurred in Pennsylvania and caused 35,000 gallons of wastewater to spill over 16 hours. In West Virginia, a gas explosion occurred after workers struck a methane gas pocket that burned seven workers. The resulting fire lasted three days. There have been a number of other less widely reported gas well explosions this past year that severely burned one worker and injured two others. Other incidents involved fires that burned for hours.

Marcellus Shale drillers claim that explosions or blowouts are rare and that hundreds of wells have been drilled without incident. They also claim to share safety practices with their competitors and are confident they can continue to drill wells safely and without harming the environment. Pennsylvania legislators are not so sure, and some have called for a moratorium on leasing mineral rights and drilling more wells.

Along with the gas explosions, a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has been blamed for contaminating water wells. Fracking is a process where drillers, after doing a vertical drill, bend the pipe and push through a vein of shale horizontally, which opens up more gas. Drillers then force a slurry of sand, water and chemicals into the well to break up the shale and release the gas.

The chemicals in the slurry may be toxic, although drillers claim otherwise. Complaints of muddy and foul smelling water, however, have risen significantly since 2007 with some citing instances of natural gas spouting from faucets.

Energy companies doing the drilling were not required to report the types of chemicals used in the process thanks to a Bush-era regulation that deregulated fracking. Since the regulations were changed, Environmental Protection Agency officials are now examining the chemicals used and their possible toxicity.