PADEP Assesses Operator $1.2 Million Penalty

By:  Michael K. Reer 

On February 27, 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that it agreed to a $1.2 million civil penalty with an operator to settle violations related to a 2012 impoundment leak. According to the PADEP news release, in September 2012, testing of five private water supplies indicated that local groundwater was affected by a leak from an on-site oil and natural gas development impoundment. The impoundment was located in Donegal Township, Westmoreland County and was drained within one week of PADEP’s discovery of the leak. 

After notification, the operator provided effected households with bottled water and has since installed treatment systems. The operator has also agreed to remediate the site in accordance with the Pennsylvania Land Recycling and Environmental Remediation Standards Act, which will require remediation of the soil, groundwater, and surface waters impacted by the leak.

PADEP stated that the penalty amount will be paid to the Commonwealth’s Well Plugging Fund.

Monday, February 27, 2017

USGS to Release Updated Hazard Maps

On February 23, 2017, the U.S. Geological Survey announced

that it will release updated maps detailing the potential of natural and induced seismic events on March 1, 2017. The 2017 maps mark the second year that USGS has projected both natural and induced seismic risks. USGS previously stated that the best indicator of future induced seismic events in a given region is the number of induced seismic events that the region experienced in the previous 12 months. Therefore, the 2017 induced hazard map is likely to reflect recent seismic activities that USGS believes were induced by human activities such as wastewater injection, coal mining, and reservoir drawdowns.

Friday, February 24, 2017

PA Alleges Salamanders Harmed By Spill

On February 22, 2017, Penn Live reported that Pennsylvania District Judge Jerry C. Lepley sent a summons to two oil and natural gas companies concerning an alleged leak of flowback water in Lycoming County. According to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the two companies allowed over 1,000 gallons of flowback water to discharge into a nearby unnamed tributary, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 169 salamanders. The Fish and Boat Commission has also stated that tests of the tributary where the discharge allegedly occurred have revealed barium, chloride, and strontium. Although the Penn Live article does not specify what species the salamanders belonged to, green salamanders are currently listed as “Pennsylvania Threatened” by the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program.

The companies must appear in court on March 8, 2017.
Thursday, February 23, 2017

Duke Releases Study on Oil and Gas Related Spills

On February 21, 2017, the journal Environmental Science & Technology published “Unconventional Oil and Gas Spills: Risks, Mitigation Priorities, and State Reporting Requirements,” an assessment of spill data from unconventional development operations in Colorado, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. The study found that between 2-16% of unconventional wells report a spill each year. The study also found that 75% of wells that reported spills were within the first three years of production, and that 50% of all spills were related to storage and moving fluids via flowlines.

The blog Energy in Depth published a critique of the Duke study, noting that the Duke study included freshwater spills in its analysis. Energy in Depth also pointed to similar spill studies that found that 78% of all oil and gas related spills are contained on the well pad and never effect the environment.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Railroad Commission to Post Quarterly Enforcement Data

On February 16, 2017, the Texas Railroad Commission announced that the agency will be adding quarterly oil and gas enforcement data to its website. Beginning with the first quarter of 2017, the Commission will post summary data detailing the number of: (1) oil and gas facility inspections with no violation; (2) statewide oil and gas rule violations; (3) major statewide oil and gas rule violations; and (4) district-initiated severance/seal orders.

The Commission also announced on February 16 that it updated its definition of a “major” oil and gas violation. A major violation is now defined as “a safety or pollution-related violation that causes a significant impact to public safety or the environment, is accompanied by conditions that indicate a significant impact to public safety or the environment is imminent, or is the result of deliberate disregard of Commission rules and regulations related to public safety or environmental protection.” Commission staff will now report major violations at the time of discovery in the field rather than at the time of referral for penalty action.
Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Court Allows CWA Citizen Suit to Proceed

On January 30, 2017, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana denied an oil and natural gas operator's motion to dismiss a Clean Water Act citizen suit that alleges that the operator dredged near the shore of Lake Grand Ecaille without a permit. The plaintiff, the Louisiana Oystermen Association, Inc., alleged that the operator used tugboats to install a drilling barge near the shore. The complaint alleges that when the water became too shallow for the drilling barge to proceed, the operator "propwashed" -- a process in which the blades of the tugboats are used to create a deeper channel -- the bottom of the lake.

The District Court found that if the plaintiff's allegations prove accurate, that the operator would indeed be in violation of the Clean Water Act for dredging a jurisdictional water without a Section 404 permit. Accordingly, if the allegations prove true, the Court could issue an injunction to prevent the operator from further dredging without a permit, order the operator to restore any damage it caused, and impose per-day civil penalties for violations. The case is Louisiana Oystermen Ass'n. v. Hilcorp Energy Co., No. 16-10171 (Dist. La. 2017).
Monday, February 20, 2017

PADEP Alleges Correlation Between Development and Seismic Event

By:  Michael K. Reer 

On February 17, 2017, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection held a press conference to announce its finding that Utica shale hydraulic fracturing activities conducted on April 25, 2016 correlated to microseismic, or unfelt seismic events. According to PADEP, hydraulic fracturing activities conducted in Lawrence County correlated to seismic events of 1.8-2.3 magnitude on the Richter Scale. Natural seismic activity has occurred since at least the 1700s in the northwest and southeast corners of the Commonwealth. Lawrence County is at the southwest corner of the seismic activity zone in the northwest part of Pennsylvania.

PADEP noted in its press conference that Lawrence County has several contributing factors that makes induced seismicity more likely during the stimulation of the Utica shale, including brittle rock fracture, increase or change in pressure regimes proximal to active faults, fault plane orientation, and minimal separation of basement rock and the area of concern. PADEP stated that during the seismic event, real-time data was provided by the Commonwealth’s seismic monitoring network to PADEP’s oil and gas department. PADEP notified the operator of the proximity of the seismic events, and the operator voluntarily ceased stimulation activities and demobilized from the well pad within hours.

PADEP has recommended that the operator undertake the following actions:

1. Continued operation of the operator’s own seismic network within the monitoring area.
2. If a potentially induced seismic event occurs within the monitoring area, the operator must submit the seismic data received from its network electronically via e-mail to PADEP within 10 minutes.
3. If a potentially induced seismic event occurs within the monitoring area, the operator must call PADEP within one hour of the event.
4. Upon occurrence of an event:
a. The operator will safely shut down stimulation operations on the well;
b. The operator may flow back the well to reduce pressure;
c. The operator may resume operations if it demonstrates that the event was not correlated to development activities; and
d. The operator may resume operations if it demonstrates that modifications to operations allow for the safe resumption of stimulation activities.
5. The operator will cease zipper fracturing activities.

PADEP has stated that it will incorporate these conditions into future well permits near areas of concern and may institute the conditions as field rules in some areas of the Commonwealth.

Friday, February 17, 2017

PADEP to Hold Webinar on Induced Seismicity

Today, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that it will hold a public webinar tomorrow, February 17, 2017 to discuss its review of seismic events that occurred in Lawrence County on April 25, 2016. According to PADEP, a series of low-magnitude seismic events on April 25, 2016 were temporally and spatially related to natural gas hydraulic fracturing activities. Speaking at the webinar will be PADEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell, PADEP Chief of Well Plugging and Subsurface Activities Seth Pelepko, and bureau geologist Harry Wise.
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Colorado Seeks Injunction of Boulder County Moratorium

On February 14, 2017, Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman filed suit in Colorado state court to enjoin Boulder County’s five-year moratorium on new drilling permits. The Attorney General alleges in the petition that the County has extended or re-imposed the five-year moratorium a total of eight times and that the moratorium has continuously been in place since 2012. The complaint further alleges that the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously determined that local governments lack the authority to ban oil and natural gas development in two significant 2016 decisions, City of Longmont v. Colo. Oil & Gas Ass’n, 369 P.3d 573 (Colo. 2016) and City of Fort Collins v. Colo. Oil & Gas Ass’n, 369 P.3d 586 (Colo. 2016). Specifically, the Attorney General notes that local bans on unconventional development may not materially impede or make superfluous the application of state law, namely, the Oil and Gas Conservation Act and the regulations promulgated thereunder.

The County has alleged that the extension of the five year moratorium is necessary so that the County can draft sufficiently stringent regulations and prepare to accept new drilling permit applications from operators.
Thursday, February 16, 2017

Railroad Commission Statistics Point to Rebound

On February 10, 2017, the Texas Railroad Commission released its permits and completions statistics for January 2017. The RRC issued a total of 956 original drilling permits during January 2017, nearly double the number of original drilling permits issued during the same period last year. The Midland District was by far the most active with 350 drilling permits. The San Antonio and Refugio Districts each accounted for over 100 drilling permits as well.

The Railroad Commission also noted in its press release that according to Baker Hughes, Inc., the Texas rig count as of February 10, 2017 was 362, representing about 49% of all active rigs in the United States.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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