Tragic Gas Well Explosion Kills Two People

Tragically, two people were killed on Friday when a gas well exploded in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania. Black smoke belched from the well for hours, and firefighters are still at the scene trying to salvage the area. The well is situated in a rural, wooded area-albeit only 15 miles northeast of Pittsburgh-keeping the human toll of this tragic accident thankfully low.

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But this explosion is not an anomaly. Rather, it is the third explosion of the summer in the Marcellus Shale region, and only one incident in a long list of accidents, spills, leaks, and unexplained health complaints. On June 3, a gas well in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, erupted into a 75-foot geyser of gas, wastewater, and sludge. It could not be controlled until after the well had spewed 35,000 gallons of waste, over the course of 16 hours. The company didn't install an appropriate pressure-control system-a basic safety requirement. Four days later, a Marcellus gas well in West Virginia, just southwest of Pittsburgh, exploded and severely burned seven people.

The gas industry is expanding voraciously in Pennsylvania, drilling more and more wells every day. Well pads, condensate tanks, waste pits, pipelines, and access roads are often placed only a few hundred feet from residential homes. A single well pad can contain 16 wells, spaced as little as 10 feet apart - shale gas drilling has industrialized countless acres of rural landscape and is already starting to encroach upon neighborhoods and schools. Reports of air pollution, water contamination, fish kills, livestock deaths, and health problems are piling up in Wyoming, Ohio, Colorado, West Virginia, Arkansas, Texas, and right next door in Pennsylvania.  

How much proof do our state legislators need before they take the bold-but necessary-step and halt industrial gas drilling in New York until its risks are properly assessed? The BP Gulf disaster serves as a potent reminder of the risks associated with unchecked, unregulated fossil fuel extraction. When drillers screw up, tragedies ensue.

We still have time to insist on a moratorium on shale gas drilling in New York. One extremely reasonable bill is still very much alive in the legislature that would delay industrial gas drilling until we better understand the implications of these new technologies-specifically hydraulic fracturing-for the environment, human health, and our quality of life.

Assembly Bill 11443-B and Senate Bill 8129-B propose to impose a temporary suspension of the use of hydraulic fracturing (hydro-fracking) in New York's Marcellus shale. The moratorium would expire on May 15, 2011, giving additional time for the New York State Department of Energy Conservation (DEC) to fully assess the risks of hydro-fracking. In November, New York will elect a new governor; the new administration will be the one that has to deal with gas permitting, and should be given the chance to fully assess the risks of drilling and to identify appropriate regulatory policies.

Please, call your state senator and assembly persons today and tell them to enact a moratorium. You can also take action here.  We need to regulate first, drill later. We need to know the facts before we can decide how best to move forward so that we can avoid the tragedies of inadequately regulated gas drilling in Pennsylvania.

NOTE: Several commenters have taken me to task for stating that yesterday's well explosion was a Marcellus well.  In fact, I said it was in the Marcellus region, which extends from West Virginia, through Ohio and Pennsylvania, and into New York.  While I stand corrected for my lack of rigor in differentiating that this latest well was not drilled in the Marcellus Shale per se, that is of course irrelevant to the larger question whether the state is equipped to regulate gas production.  With the Marcellus craze in full swing, regulators are stretched beyond their limits and the regulations themselves have been demonstrated to be out-of-date.  The message remains the same: while Pennsylvania owes its citizens to get its regulations up-to-speed and ensure it has the resources to effectively regulate the activity (i.e., gas production irrespective of target formation), New York - where production in the Marcellus hasn't yet begun - needs to slow it down and get it right FIRST.  We need to be sure our regulations and our regulators can handle things - before people die. 

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