Marcellus Shale Well Violations Discrepancies

Pittsburgh Business Times
19 August 2011
By Anya Litvak

Since the state Department of Environmental Protection began tallying Marcellus Shale violations, a wide gap between regions has been obvious, making southwestern Pennsylvania operators seem more environmentally responsible than the rest.

But it’s the department’s own record keeping, rather than companies’ virtues or vices, that accounts for much of the difference, a DEP team has found.

Marcellus drilling has been concentrated in two regions of the state — in southwestern counties, mainly Washington, Greene and Fayette, and in northeastern ones, mainly Bradford, Tioga, Susquehanna and Lycoming.

According to a Business Times analysis, for the first half of this year, top Marcellus operators received about 14 violations for each 100 wells drilled in southwestern Pennsylvania, while in the northeastern part of the state, drillers were issued more than one violation per well.

A violation can range from improperly filled out paperwork to a well blowout or frac fluid spill, with a small fraction of citations resulting in either fines or other penalties, such as temporary work halts.

Over the past three and half years, for which data is available and since Marcellus exploration has begun in earnest, southwestern Pennsylvania wells have consistently averaged less than half the violations per wells drilled as the rest of the state.

Such inconsistencies were the impetus behind DEP Secretary Michael Krancer’s controversial order that all new violation notices must go through him, an initiative canceled after a few weeks this spring, according to the DEP.

Less publicly, Krancer convened a team of DEP personnel and executive staff to examine potential causes for inconsistencies in violations, said DEP spokesperson Katy Gresh.

“One of the things that they learned through their research is that there are a lot more violations being written in one region over others,” she said.

The team has identified two major drivers contributing to a higher per-well violation count in the northeast. If a well site is found to be in violation of more than one environmental law, inspectors in the northeast are more likely to issue identical violations for each law the company is violating, while southwestern DEP staff are likely to record that as one breach.

Similarly, southwestern inspectors tend to interpret a spill or other impact at a well site as one violation, regardless of how many wells have been drilled from the same well pad. In the northeastern part of the state, inspectors are issuing as many violations as there are holes in the ground at each well site.

That practice can be skewing the numbers in favor of southwestern Pennsylvania and making it difficult to parse the safest operators from the less safety-conscious ones, as, currently, only a few companies have significant operations in both drilling regions. For those that do — Range Resources and EQT Corp. — the difference in violations is marked.

During the first six months of this year, Range’s southwestern Pennsylvania operations are averaging about two violations per 10 wells drilled. In Lycoming County, the operator has received about 12 violations for each 10 drilled wells.

Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said company analysts, “take a deep enough dive into the facts to understand the differences, and I believe landowners are smart enough to see it with their own eyes.”

“However, it’s an issue and one that we’re pleased the secretary is looking at,” he said.

EQT’s per-well violation rate this year varies between 7 percent in the southwestern region and 80 percent in the northeast.


Such swings in safety indicators make it difficult for industry observers and landowners evaluating a proposed contract with a driller to perform accurate due diligence on the company. It also makes it harder to spot bad actors.

Violations data is just one part of assessing the safety profile of a Marcellus operator, said Jan Jarrett, president and CEO of PennFuture, an environmental advocacy group. Whether a firm has an executive-level officer devoted to environmental safety is another. For an in-depth look at each company’s compliance record, Jarrett recommends doing a file review at the DEP district office, where the agency keeps detailed records of correspondences about each violation.

According to Gresh, “the most important thing to point out is (the discrepancies don’t) have any effect on enforcement. The difference is how these violations are being captured.”

Indeed, enforcement and fines are much more evenly distributed across the regions, according to DEP data.

“The nice thing is, as far as the information that we’re getting, everything is reported. It just might be reported in the notes section as opposed to being reported in the actual violation,” Gresh said.

She said the team’s findings have gone to Krancer for evaluation, but no action or directive has been issued yet to streamline the violations process.

Anya Litvak covers energy, transportation, gaming and accounting. Contact her at or (412) 208-3824.