State DEP Amends Gas Well Permits

Morgantown Dominion Post
20 May 2011
By Tracy Eddy

The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) amended permits for two Marcellus shale gas wells in the Morgantown Industrial Park on Thursday to include safety measures the drilling company agreed to with the Morgantown Utility Board (MUB).

The safety measures include additional spill containment measures, extra pressure testing of pipes and appropriately disposing of all waste off-site.

MUB General Manager Tim Ball said the area’s water supply will be better protected once those provisions are in place.

The Dominion Post obtained a copy of the DEP’s permit modification approval documents, which include a request from Northeast Natural Energy to modify the permits to allow a closed-loop drilling process, as well as a letter the drilling company sent to MUB.

Brett Loflin, Northeast Natural Energy’s vice president of regulatory affairs, said the letter the drilling company sent MUB outlined the company’s current best practices — things they were going to do at the site anyway — and three additional safeguards MUB requested.

“We take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously,” he said.

Ball said MUB and the drilling company spent most of the past two weeks negotiating the terms in the letter.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the department issued Northeast Natural Energy permits within the state’s oil and gas regulations.

“It was a good permit to begin with,” Huffman said. “The conversations between the two entities made an even better permit.”

Northeast Natural Energy — a Charleston-based company — will use a closed loop drilling process at its two sites at the Morgantown Industrial Park. Loflin said the process means the returns from drilling fluids that are pumped into the well — which could include the fluid and rock cuttings — go into steel tanks.

He said without the closedloop system, the returns would go into an open pit.

Loflin said the drilling company will recycle its drilling fluid returns so they can be used again.

Any waste from the operation will be disposed of offsite, Loflin said. State regulations allow drilling companies to treat the water and then apply it to the land. But Loflin said Northeast Natural Energy will not be doing that.

The drilling company will dispose of its waste in a landfill or injection well, Loflin said. It is unknown exactly where the waste for the two wells at the Morgantown Industrial Park will be disposed of, he said, but the company will have to notify the DEP of the location.

Additional safeguards will be in place in case of a spill. Loflin said the well pad will be surrounded by a 2.5-foot berm covered with a synthetic, impermeable liner. There also will be a reserve pit that will have the same liner — so if there is any kind of spill, it would be collected, he said.

There will be vacuum pumps on site, Loflin said, allowing any spills to be vacuumed up and pumped into tanks.

“No fluids should ever contact the earth,” he said.

Loflin said the drilling company will add a second automated valve so operations could be controlled remotely, at MUB’s request.

Casing pipes in the wells will be pressure-tested to ensure there are no leaks and the pipes are sound, he said — again at MUB’s request. Production pipes will also be pressure-tested after the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, starts. Loflin said it is always done beforehand, but the drilling company has agreed to do it afterwards as well.

Huffman said the DEP will enforce the amended permits and make sure the drilling company keeps up its end of the agreement.

The department will not be able to issue citations for any violations of the agreement, he said, because it can only issue citations for things outlined in state regulations.

Ball said the utility board intends to visit the well site to make sure the safety measures have been implemented.

Huffman said the DEP forbade Northeast Natural Energy from drilling at the Morgantown Industrial Park sites until negotiations between the company and MUB were resolved.

Drilling was expected to begin Wednesday, but did not. Loflin said drilling started Thursday. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, won’t start for at least a few months.

Ball said he couldn’t say there were no risks to the water now, because there are risks in everything — even walking across the street. “I can tell you, in our opinion, there are appropriate safeguards in place to properly manage those risks.”