Hydraulic fracturing rare in Ky., but Appalachian Forum poses questions about regulation and pollution of gas drilling

This article originally appeared in The Rural Blog earlier this week:

By Ivy Brashear
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Geologists, professors, activists and experts came together for the Appalachian Forum on Hydraulic Fracturing last night at the University of Kentucky to discuss fracking as a means of natural-gas extraction in the state.

Kentucky gas wells usually go about 5,000 feet below the surface, much shallower than the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, where there has been the most controversy about hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.

The development of those shales and others, through horizontal drilling and hydrofracking, has greatly boosted U.S. gas resources, and shale gas is expected to make up 49 percent of U.S. gas production by 2035.

The shales in Kentucky have much more clay, and that discourages hydrofracking in the state because water makes clay formations swell, inhibiting the release of gas. Instead, Kentucky drillers frack with liquid nitrogen. “Every shale well in Kentucky is fracked,” said Rick Bender, vice president of BlackRidge Resource Partners, a Lexington firm with gas wells in Ohio. “Without fracking, we couldn’t get the gas out.”

Bender, former longtime director of the state Division of Oil and Gas, said nitrogen fracking creates little waste because chemicals aren’t used, and nitrogen fracking is “generally very safe.” After fracking, the nitrogen is released into the atmosphere, which is 71 percent nitrogen, an inert gas.

Drilling it right

Faulty well construction presents the biggest risk for groundwater contamination during drilling and fracking, Bender and other experts said. He said 99 percent of the wells drilled when he was director of the division, from 1995 to 2007, were properly constructed.

Division of Oil and Gas Director Kim Collings said it’s the agency’s job to protect the mineral owners and preserve and protect oil and gas wells. Inspectors make sure the well site and drill hole are at the proper distance from property lines and other wells. Gas companies must obtain permits and submit casing and cementing before drilling for the division's review.

The division issues notices of violation, oversees well transfers from one company to another, reviews annual production reports and plugs abandoned wells when necessary, using bonds forfeited by drillers. “The industry does a really good job” of preventing pollution and constructing wells properly, Collings said.

The division’s field inspectors are its “first line of defense” against faulty wells and bad operators, she said, acknowledging that budget cuts have reduced the number of inspectors to 14 from 20. More than 1,100 wells were permitted in the state last year.

If a company is operating illegally, Bender said, the division will shut it down. Companies aren’t fined, but are required to fix faulty wells within 45 days. If they don’t comply, their bond is forfeited, and once they forfeit, they may not be able to get another bond.

Moderator Al Cross observed that oil and gas regulation in Kentucky is lighter than that applied to strip mining, the main environmental concern in Eastern Kentucky. UK rural sociologist Dwight Billings, who specializes in Appalachia, asked why Eastern Kentuckians should trust the gas industry and its regulators considering the region’s long history of exploitation by the coal industry.

Bender said gas drilling causes less impact, and added “It’s up to the citizens to decide whether or not it’s a good industry.” He said the division has scored well in its two analyses by STRONGER (State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations), a nonprofit group formed by states and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Brandon Nuttall, senior geologist for the Kentucky Geological Survey at UK, said Eastern Kentucky wells produce 98 percent of the state’s annual gas production, and since nitrogen fracking began in the 1970s, the state has produced 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Last year, gas production brought $25 million back to the state through severance taxes.

He said Kentucky has 40,000 to 45,000 producing gas wells, most in Pike, Knott, Letcher, Floyd and Perry Counties. EQT Corp., the state's largest production company, has recently announced it won’t drill any more wells in Kentucky, and is moving operations into the richer Marcellus formation. That will cost the division money in permit fees, Collings acknowledged.

Environmental concerns

Two other scientists on the panel discussed broader environmental aspects of gas drilling.

Eastern Kentucky University geology professor Melissa Dieckmann cited a study from Duke University in which methane gas released during fracking in the Marcellus and Utica shales was found in shallow groundwater, and a new study from the University of Texas Energy Institute that found the primary concerns for groundwater contamination are bad well casings, spills on the surface that go underground, and vibration caused by fracking.

As a greenhouse gas, methane is 25 percent more powerful than carbon dioxide, the primary gas involved in global warming, but it lasts for about 10 years in the atmosphere while CO2 lasts up to 200 years. UK chemistry professor Marcelo Guzman cited a study from Colorado which estimated that 4 percent of methane from wells leaked out, twice as much as the industry standard of 2 percent, raising concerns about increased gas production. Natural gas has been touted as a "greener" fuel because it generates about half as much CO2 when burned as a comparable amount of coal. Bender said much work is being done to develop closed-loop systems to capture methane.

Pat Banks, director of Kentucky Riverkeeper, an environmental group that fights water pollution, said citizens need to know all the facts surrounding gas drilling in Kentucky. “Fracking is the new sexy source of energy extraction,” she said, and the technology is moving faster than the regulators.

Banks said it is hard for citizens to hold companies accountable when something goes wrong, because the burden of proof in a lawsuit in high, and suits are settled privately. She said multinational companies control gas reserves and will put gas into the global market, she said, which won’t necessarily reduce costs for Kentucky consumers in Kentucky. “Natural gas is promised to be safer, cheaper, cleaner and we’ve got the science to do it,” she said. “But should we?”

Nuttall said water pollution is always a possibility when a well is drilled, but there are no multinational corporations drilling in the state, and called drillers “our neighbors” who "drink the same water." he said very few wells in Kentucky have been fracked with chemicals, and the chemicals used in many states are listed on FracFocus.org, a website maintained by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.