Analysis: Myth-- Conventional Oil And Gas Drilling Is Benign

Representatives of the conventional (non-Marcellus Shale) oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania are trying to perpetuate the myth that conventional drilling is “benign” and doesn’t affect the environment.

Last year, legislation-- Senate Bill 1378 (Scarnati-R-Jefferson) and House Bill 2350 (Causer-R-Cameron) -- was introduced to force DEP to adopt separate regulations for conventional well drillers used the word “benign” in the introduction of the bill to describe conventional drilling industry, but they carefully, but inaccurately, added “after the 1984 Oil and Gas Act was passed.”

Let’s look at the facts.

 From 1859 to 1984 there were some 325,000 conventional oil and gas wells or more drilled in Pennsylvania without any environmental standards.  We don’t know the real number because there was no real control over well locations until 1984.

An estimated 200,000 of those wells are now abandoned and unplugged creating a pathway for air, soil and ground and surface water pollution in 25 counties around the state.

The 1984 Oil and Gas Act was the first state statute to require permits for oil and gas wells and set comprehensive standards for well construction and operation. 

It was opposed bitterly by the conventional oil and gas industry in the face of story after story of how garden hoses were turned into flamethrowers by leaking methane gas, drinking water wells that didn’t produce water or were contaminated.

The industry said the same thing then-- conventional drilling was “benign” and had no impact on the environment.

Let’s take a closer look.

In 2014, conventional oil and gas well operations accounted for nearly 78 percent of the total violations DEP recorded for conventional and unconventional drilling operations, but just over 52 percent of the inspections. 

In 2013 it was 75.6 percent of violations with 48.5 percent of inspections.  In 2012 it was 74.4 percent of the violations and 48.1 percent of inspections.  In 2011 it was 63 percent of the violations and 52.4 percent of inspections.  In 2010 it was 49.6 percent of violations and 67.1 percent of inspections.

You get the picture.

There are more conventional wells inspected by DEP-- 8,151 conventional wells in 2014 versus 5,000 unconventional wells inspected by DEP, but DEP’s figures also show about 17 percent of the conventional wells inspected had violations, if you spread them out evenly, but less than half of the unconventional wells-- 8 percent-- had violations in 2014.

Let’s look further.

DEP has a running list of 248 cases where DEP has made a determination on whether water supplies were contaminated by oil and natural gas drill from 2008 to 2014.  About half of the water supplies were damaged by conventional drilling and half by unconventional, according to DEP.

Of the 19 special caution areas with poisonous hydrogen sulfide dangers DEP has identified and dealt with over the last few years, 14 were from conventional wells.

Contrary to what some believe, conventional well drillers do use fracking to increase their production. 

In fact, Louis D. D’Amico, Executive Director of the PA Independent Oil and Gas Association, noted recently that while only a few companies are contemplating it, the opportunity could be a lifeline for small, family-owned companies that have worked in Pennsylvania.

So, the facts are--

1. Conventional Wells Cause Water Loss, Contamination Just Like Unconventional Wells: Conventional wells are just as likely to cause water well loss and contamination as unconventional wells, even more so because there are more conventional wells than unconventional wells.

2. Conventional Wells Have More Violations: DEP inspections found conventional drillers had a higher rate of violations of the existing regulations than unconventional drillers.

3. Both Use Fracking: Both conventional and unconventional wells use fracking to increase production and conventional well drillers are also exploring the use of horizontal drilling to increase yields.

4. Conventional Wells Are Drilled Through Same Sensitive Aquifers: Conventional wells can be drilled to a depth of 1,500 to 21,000 feet and unconventional wells can be drilled to a depth of 5,000 to 9,000 and then laterally another 10,000 feet or more, both passing through sensitive groundwater aquifers.

5. Conventional Wells Create A Bigger Footprint: To develop the same amount of natural gas, conventional well drillers must drill 16 or more wells, while unconventional drillers use as few as 8 in 75 percent less land area.

6. Smaller Companies, Fewer Resources: Conventional oil and gas well drillers tend to be smaller companies with fewer resources to deal with environmental and water replacement problems when they do develop and that means taxpayers may have to foot the bill much more often.

Conventional and unconventional well drilling can both have serious impacts on the environment and public health if not done correctly and in compliance with state law and regulations.

To say that conventional well drilling is “benign” is simply a myth.  It should be covered by strict environmental regulations, not exempted in any way, just like unconventional well drilling.

Photo: Google Earth Photo Of Conventional Wells In Allegheny National Forest

Related Links

DEP 2014 Annual Oil And Gas Program Report

DEP Oil And Gas Inspection/Compliance Reporting Database


DEP Releases Drilling Regulations For Public Comment

GOP, Industry Oppose Updated Conventional Drilling Rules

Conventional Well Drillers Want Different Rules Than Shale Industry

Op-Ed: Drilling Industry Should Realize Wolf Is New Sheriff

New Rules For Conventional Oil & Gas Wells Draw Industry Ire

Drilling Industry Criticizes DEP Regulations

Quigley Responds To Criticism Over New Drilling Regulations

Editorial: Still Work To Do On Gas Drilling Regulations


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