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Marcellus well blowout: Dark side of economic gain

CLEARFIELD, Pa. - Clearfield County has a long history of timber and coal extraction, and many here eagerly welcomed the economic promise of Marcellus Shale natural gas exploration.

An EOG well at the Punxsutawney Hunting Club. The large containers collect liquids from the well's wastewater and fuel. (ANDY MAYKUTH / Staff)
An EOG well at the Punxsutawney Hunting Club. The large containers collect liquids from the well's wastewater and fuel. (ANDY MAYKUTH / Staff)Read more

CLEARFIELD, Pa. - Clearfield County has a long history of timber and coal extraction, and many here eagerly welcomed the economic promise of Marcellus Shale natural gas exploration.

But the June 3 blowout of a Marcellus gas well was a reminder that natural-resource development does not come without costs.

Workers lost control of the well on the Punxsutawney Hunting Club grounds, and it unleashed a combustible 75-foot fountain of natural gas and toxic wastewater.

Precious hours were lost when a blowout-control team from Texas was unable to land at the fogged-in regional airport and was diverted to Johnstown, 60 miles away. When the crew arrived at the well, it needed only an hour to cap the blowout. But by then, the gusher had spewed for 16 hours.

No one was injured, state officials called the environmental damage modest, and the well did not ignite - unlike a Marcellus well in West Virginia that leaked, caught fire, and injured seven workers last week.

The Clearfield incident prompted anti-drilling activists to renew calls for a moratorium on new wells, and state environmental officials promised an aggressive investigation.

Taking away a different lesson from the nerve-wracking experience were the members of the Clearfield County Commission.

While withholding judgment on the performance of the company whose well blew out, EOG Resources Inc., the three commissioners said in an interview Thursday that they had written to the Texas contractor whose rapid-response team capped the runaway well and impressed local officials with its daring.

They invited the contractor, Wild Well Control Inc., to locate an office in Clearfield so that next time there is a blowout, a crew would be poised to react more quickly.

"They need to be here in the region," said Commissioner Joan Robinson McMillen, a Republican, who added that there had been no response to the invitation. "We'd love to host them here."

Commissioner Mark B. McCracken, a Democrat, said the county still wanted a share of the gas boom's benefits. "Something positive could come out of this potential disaster," he said.

"This county's wealth is based on natural resources," said John Sobel, a Republican. "Historically it has been, and it will continue to be."

The commissioners anticipate more Marcellus blowouts - an expectation that is not unreasonable.

Though the Clearfield blowout was the first since Marcellus development took off two years ago, well-drilling accidents do happen. Witness the still-uncontrolled rupture of BP's deep-water oil well off the Louisiana coast.

Nor are blowouts unknown in Pennsylvania. In the early days of oil and gas development here, drillers did not think they had struck pay dirt until they got a gusher.

Terry Engelder, a Pennsylvania State University geosciences professor, lectures about the 1940 blowout of a New York gas well near the Pennsylvania border. It took four weeks to bring under control.

"In their time, they were no big deal," Engelder said.

As gas exploration probed deeper formations and well pressures increased, engineers improved well-control techniques. They devised drilling "mud" to keep gas from spewing and blowout preventers to halt eruptions.

Still, blowouts can overwhelm control measures. The blowout preventer on the EOG Resources well in Clearfield failed, officials say.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry in that state, has recorded 102 blowouts of oil and gas wells since the start of 2006, resulting in 10 fires, 12 injuries, and 2 deaths.

A 2006 blowout of a Fort Worth shale-gas well similar to those being drilled in the Marcellus killed a rig worker who had mistakenly opened a valve. It prompted the city to enact an ordinance doubling the 300-foot zone separating wells from occupied structures, to 600 feet.

By Texas standards, the Punxsutawney Hunting Club blowout was isolated. Well 36H is on a four-acre pad that contains three other wells and is surrounded by eight square miles of club-owned forest.

EOG has about a dozen well pads on the club's land and is developing more on an adjoining parcel of Moshannon State Forest, where it also controls mineral rights.

"It's pretty desolate around here," said Gary L. Stonbraker, a club officer who lives in a cabin there in the summer. His neighbors are mostly elk, deer, a bear, and wild turkey. The nearest year-round dwellings on private land are three miles away.

Gas drilling is not making the hunting club rich. When it acquired its 4,700 acres in 1919, the mineral rights had already been separated by the previous owner, a timbering operation. The rights were acquired by Seneca Resources Corp., which partnered with EOG to develop the mile-deep shale.

The highland forests, mixed with an undergrowth of ferns and blossoming laurel, are now broken by a dozen four-acre well pads. EOG built a large impoundment area to contain the water injected into wells during the hydraulic-fracturing process. The water is delivered to the drilling sites through black plastic pipes that snake through the forest.

The company compensated the club for the disturbances. Members console themselves knowing that when the drilling is done, EOG is obliged to remove the surface pipes and water pond and revegetate the well pads. But drilling may go on for years.

"You can't say it has had no effect on us," said Stonbraker, a retired school administrator, who nevertheless had only praise for the way EOG has conducted itself, and kept the dirt roads repaired.

After the blowout, the state Department of Environmental Protection said, 35,000 gallons of fluid, mostly saltwater, were collected from the well pad. DEP said tests showed some contaminants that migrated off the well site appeared to be dissipating a week after the spill.

It would not be EOG's first leak. DEP cited the company in August for a spill of drilling fluids from a lined pit at a hunting club well site.

Stonbraker said he was not too concerned. "This thing got blown so far out of proportion, it's pathetic," he said.

The day after the blowout, Stonbraker and another club officer chased away an anti-drilling activist they said had trespassed on their posted private land to collect water samples near the well site. The activist later blogged about his exploits.

"Who knows? Maybe he was trying to put something into the creek," Stonbraker said.

Three miles downstream from the blowout site, Jim Callender, 35, a burly bridge welder from the Pittsburgh area, was hammering a new roof last week onto the outhouse of the vacation cabin his family has leased for 52 years on Laurel Run Road.

He expressed the kind of mixed feelings about gas drilling shared by many here.

"There are a lot of people around here who are going through hard times, so they rely on those gas royalties to survive," he said.

But Callender is also an avid trout fisherman. He draws his drinking water from a spring not far from the hunting club.

"I completely understand why we need natural gas," said Callender. "We can't rely on foreign oil all our lives.

"But I don't want the drilling to pollute the streams where I fish. That would be intolerable."