Well casing failure is among the foremost concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing, or oil & gas drilling operations more broadly. As wells age or are abandoned, the rate of casing failure or methane leakage can rise to nearly 60% (cited in Alberta). Fracking compounds the risk by potentially creating new pathways to other natural fractures or nearby wells – and hence even more methane migration routes. If we assume the validity of new reports, which suggest that horizontally-drilled wells are subject to the greatest risk of methane leakage, how do companies and regulatory agencies ensure proper well construction and monitoring? What happens when a company receives a violation, or repeated violations?
As of yet, the risks associated with horizontal wells are unclear.
Besides, 90% of casing failures occur at the connecting points that link each individual steel pipe together. It follows that improper cementing of the well at these connections is the leading factor that makes groundwater contamination possible. Unfortunately, because regulations and monitoring capacity vary across states, companies too tend to vary in their well casing and cementing procedures, making it so that some companies are more likely than others to incur well casing violations. Simultaneously, limited or unfinished violations lists make it difficult for a homeowner or any citizen to know which companies are under-performing.
State profiles of drilling violations
A few notable organizations are attempting to fill in the gaps. Earthworks has extensive profiles on oil & gas regulatory enforcement and violations for Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Made available on their website, analysts look at the performance of each regulatory body in these states; agencies are evaluated based on data of well site inspections over the last few years.
Pennsylvania has been in the spotlight in the drive for public disclosure of company violations. Since 2008, there have been over 1,400 recorded regulatory violations along the state’s Marcellus shale play, though the severity of each violation is debatable. In 2012, 76 wells drilled in PA were found to be weak and failing but drillers were never cited or penalized for these problems. Inspectors would not often cite or report well failure at all. Their Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was implicated in a “revolving door” scenario, in which officials were moving between the department and the private oil & gas sector, or vice versa, and so were not inspecting wells and disciplining companies that paid inadequate attention to well design.
In response to heightened criticism and a few well-reported water contamination crises (such as Dimock’s), the DEP has since released data on the number and type of violations on drilling wells across the state. Drillers are also required to notify the DEP immediately if well casing failure occurs. But the DEP is not yet required to notify landowners when a violation is discovered, even if infractions include poor cementing. Recall that inadequate or clumsy cementing jobs incurs greater risk of gas seepage into the water supply.
Penalties for well casing violations
Even when stringent regulations are in place, state agencies such as Pennsylvania’s DEP have not often held companies accountable for violations. For each cementing and well casing violation found in 2011, only 17 of the 119 violators received a fine. For all drilling and fracking violations in general, over 90% received no fine or penalty. Only the highly publicized water contamination case associated with Chesapeake Appalachia Inc amounted to significant fines – 55% of the total garnered that year from violations. Environmental and civil society organizations from the counties affected have called on the DEP to rectify uneven, inconsistent monitoring and disciplining of companies.
Ensuring safety, closing regulatory gaps
Studies of well casing failure and violations are currently limited to the Marcellus region in PA, though other states are learning from Pennsylvania. Over the past month alone, a number of states have passed strict rules that mandate surface pipe depths, strength, cement quality and cement volume, to better prevent well casing failure. New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have collectively implemented new regulations to strengthen well construction guidelines. Whether or not the states have enough inspectors to monitor wells is another thing. According to a thorough, exhaustive report on well casing failure violations in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the authors from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute maintain in their findings that increasing the inspector workforce (due to sheer volume of new drilling operations) is critical. Their violations data demonstrates that individual companies do considerably better than others, some showing few or no drilling violations whatsoever. Citizens living in drilling-heavy areas should have access to graphs that reveal specific companies with the worst violation ratios. If you happen to live in Pennsylvania, check out pages 88-89 for a graph that displays specific companies and the number of infractions received by each.
Obviously, there’s substantial regional variance across well drilling and casing practice, making it difficult to ensure that proven methods and regulations are used by local contractors or state agencies. People who identify problems with their drinking water supply may be near the site of a more careless company. To better know which regions and companies are more likely to incur violations in well casing design, FracTracker has launched a National Mapping Project, whereby crowdsourced data on water contamination is collected and assembled visually on a US Map of Suspected Well Water Impacts.
What’s next? We’ve confirmed that concerns associated with well design and the subsequent fracking treatment (which can compound the risks of a faulty well) are credible. However, states will likely address this issue by passing strict regulations to improve and standardize company performance across the country and so minimize the risks of increased gas drilling and fracking.