Onshore Catastrophe in Waiting: Two Natural Gas Drilling Accidents in the Last Week


Editor's Note: Breaking news is reporting that a Texas natural gas pipeline explosion today has killed at least three people.

As the BP Halliburton oil drilling catastrophe continues, national leaders are touting natural gas drilling as a safe and clean bridge to a green future. The Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act promotes deep drilling of shale, an aggressive new technology that fractures the vast shale formations across the country. But meanwhile, in under 100 hours, two natural gas wells have exploded, like the Macondo Gulf well, from over pressured gas.

On Thursday night, a well in Clearfield County, Pa, went out of control, causing local officials to close roads, divert air traffic, and evacuate a one mile area. The gusher shot drilling fluid and wet gas 75 feet into the air for 16 hours until it was brought under control but not until a million gallons of gas had made it to the floor of a Pennsylvania State forest, heading toward a tributary of the Susquehanna River, only 10 miles from the much traveled Interstate 80. Monday morning, at 8 am, a gas well in West Virginia's Upper Panhandle in the same gas-rich Marcellus Shale exploded, and is still burning. Seven workers have been hospitalized for burns.

Both wells were using the controversial technology of horizontal hydraulic fracturing--or fracking--that today's gas industry employs. A far cry from 20th century shallow gas drilling, fracking involves drilling a mile vertically into the earth and then drilling horizontally for several more miles, blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and undisclosed chemicals into the shale n order to free the gas from the dense rock. In the 34 states where gas fracking has taken place, residents have reported water and air contamination from drilling chemicals and fires and spoiled wells from methane migration. Earlier blowouts have provided evidence of particular toxins in drilling fluid including known carcinogens such as benzene. Earlier fracking blowouts have also resulted in burn injuries, which hospitals were unable to treat properly because gas companies will not reveal the content of their proprietary drilling mix.

EOG Resources, formerly known as Enron, owns the Pennsylvania facility and Chief Oil and Natural Gas owns the West Virginia well. The EOG blowout came at the same point in drilling as the BP blowout, as the exploratory stage was ending and the well was being plugged for production. Both wells had a faulty blowout protector, a basic and inexpensive safety device. The Chief well blowout occurred as the drill reached the 1,100 foot depth of abandoned coal mine that sits on top of the shale deposit. As in the recent West Virginia Massey Coal explosion, which took the lives of 25 workers in April, the fire was caused by ignited methane.

The 2005 Energy Act exempted fracking from federal oversight and critical provisions of the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, leaving oversight to states, where regulation, for financial and political reasons, has been lax. State governments in shale states have welcomed fracking as a boon to struggling economies though opponents have argued that any boom is short-lived, leaving a bust of scarred landscape, degraded environments, human and animal illness, and a drop in land value. In counties of Pennsylvania slated for fracking, it is becoming increasingly difficult for home buyers to get mortgages.

Bills are slowly moving through both the House and Senate to require gas companies to identify the contents of their fracking fluid and to comply with federal environmental legislation.But industry and its Congressional supporters are fighting these measures, maintaining that self regulation works.

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