What Kind of "Impact" Has Cabot Oil and Gas Had on Pennsylvania?

Thumbnail image for 1280px-Frac_job_in_process.JPG

Just about a week ago, Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation, the company associated with widespread methane contamination of groundwater in Dimock, Pennsylvania, received one of the Governor’s new “Community Impact Awards”—an award for companies that “exemplif[y] the tenet of ‘doing well by doing good.’”

We’ve written a lot about Dimock in the last several years and know a number of residents in the area both in and outside of Dimock, so this award got us thinking about the impact Cabot has had on the region, its people, and its resources.

The Impact Cabot Has Had On Local Water

On January 1, 2009, the water well of Norma Fiorentino exploded, beginning a years-long investigation into the unusually high methane levels in the water supplies of roughly twenty families in Dimock, Pennsylvania—a very small town where Cabot had drilled dozens of wells.  In some homes, the water was so saturated with methane that levels were at twice the concentration where the gas naturally begins to seep out of the water, creating an explosion risk.  Many Dimock water supplies also showed spikes in other contaminants like iron (which can turn water dark black or orange), manganese, aluminum, and sulfide (a small amount of which can make water smell like rotten eggs or worse).

Almost two years into the investigation, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, then DEP Secretary, John Hanger, wrote an open letter about the incident, stating:

"Cabot is responsible for the gas migration that has caused families to be without a permanent water supply for nearly 2 years and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will seek court orders to make Cabot pay for all costs. . .

This action is being taken based on overwhelming evidence that proves the Cabot wells are the source of the contamination. DEP has collected ample evidence tying methane found in private water supplies to Cabot's wells. We have witnessed and chronicled bubbling gas and high pressure readings from a number of wells that prove poor well construction, and taken readings that show excessive gas levels that could only exist in wells that are leaking. Sophisticated testing has "fingerprinted" gas samples and matched the gas found in five homes to the gas leaking from the nearby Cabot wells."

Although DEP’s public statements about the incident softened after the 2010 elections, DEP has continuously maintained that Cabot gas wells contaminated Dimock groundwater.  These findings are also consistent with the conclusions of U.S. EPA field agents—as revealed in documents leaked to the LA Times last summer—that methane released during drilling “and perhaps during the fracking process” by Cabot resulted in “significant,” and possibly long-term, “damage to the water quality.”

This small mountain of evidence, however, hasn’t convinced Cabot.  As recent court filings by DEP show, “Cabot continues to dispute [the] determinations by the Department.” Since the beginning, Cabot has never publicly admitted any responsibility for the tremendous amounts of methane in Dimock water.  

Moreover, it appears by the company’s actions that it is doing everything in its power to silence affected homeowners as to what really happened to local water. Most legal claims against the driller have been settled out of court, and contain non-disclosure agreements, a common industry practice that prevents local residents from ever talking about what really happened. 

Cabot also purchased many of the properties in the affected neighborhood as part of the settlements, clearing out former critics of the company, and even demolishing one home and reselling the property with the restriction that no buildings on the site “shall [ever] be erected as or for or used or occupied as a residence or dwelling for human habitation.”

The Impact Cabot Has Had on Local Air

As we’ve long known, air emissions from fracking can have dramatic impacts on local air quality (see, for example, the incident a couple of years ago where fracking activity in rural Wyoming was blamed for causing smog greater than that of LA). That is why in Northeastern Pennsylvania—where hundreds upon hundreds of wells have been drilled in recent years—air quality is a big issue for everyone. Rebecca Roter, founder of the community group Breathe Easy Susquehanna County, eloquently summarized the situation like this: “If my water well went bad, I could choose not to drink that water,” but “we all breathe the same air, so everybody is equally impacted.” 

While Cabot isn’t the only driller in Northeastern Pennsylvania by a long shot, it’s definitely a sizable one, and the company is also a major player in planned infrastructure such as the Constitution Pipeline, which, if constructed, the company will use to move five million cubic feet of gas a day. Gas infrastructure like pipelines and compressor stations (used to pressurize the gas to move through the pipeline) can emit contaminants like benzene, formaldehyde, smog-forming ozone, and other air pollutants that have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects, and cancer.  This is especially true during regular, so-called “blowdowns”—events where compressor stations dump raw fracked gas into the atmosphere, sometimes for hours, and are often about as loud as a jet engine (for footage of a blowdown see here).

So what has Cabot’s impact been on local air quality, you ask?  The answer is unclear, because air emissions from fracking haven’t really been studied in the region. Only now is DEP beginning to monitor air quality in Susquehanna County in response to local pressure, but community groups have noted that companies like Cabot can do more. At the top of the list for community leaders like Roter, would be continuous, real-time, and publicly-available air quality monitoring by the company itself, which would shed light on the true nature of air pollution from oil and gas well sites, and give residents the tools to better protect themselves from potential harms.

Good People Take Responsibility for the Damage They Cause

To be fair, the award Cabot received last week was designed to go to Pennsylvania companies that hire state residents and also do philanthropic work. And it is true that Cabot helped has helped raise $4 million for a new hospital in Susquehanna County and also funded a $2.5 million endowment to Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum and Natural Gas. But does this mean that Cabot has “done well by doing good?”

There is no doubt that Cabot has done well in the region—the company’s profits in 2013 soared to $279.8 million, aided in no small part by their holdings in Northeastern Pennsylvania. But the numbers that aren’t publicized are the community costs that go unmeasured, or worse, are actively suppressed by the industry.

While Cabot’s charitable contributions (one of which, I’ll note, is to a school that trains students to work in the oil and gas industry, thereby potentially benefiting Cabot) should not be underestimated, good people (including so-called “corporate citizens”) don’t only take credit for their good deeds, but also own up to the harms they cause others. In this department, Cabot may still have a lot of work to do.

Related Issues
Fossil Fuels

Related Blogs