Natural gas well blowout raises safety concerns of fracking

Monday, April 25, 2011

From a Reuters article by Edward McAllister:

(Reuters) - A blowout at a Pennsylvania natural gas well late Tuesday could heighten concerns about the safety of a controversial process to extract gas from shale rock.

The accident comes at a sensitive time for energy drillers, exactly one year after an explosion that led to the massive BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and just as regulators mull whether to allow the technique in New York state.

The well in Bradford County, operated by Chesapeake Energy, spewed thousands of gallons of drilling fluid used in hydraulic fracturing, county emergency management officials said.

The process, also called fracking, releases natural gas from shale rock by blasting it with water, sand and chemicals.

Local residents were evacuated from Leroy Township, about 25 miles from the New York border, though Chesapeake said no one was hurt.

"An equipment failure occurred during well-completion activities, allowing the release of completion fluids," Chesapeake said in a statement.

The fluid initially spilled into a nearby waterway but tests found no adverse affects on aquatic life as yet, said a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Environmentalists and residents have complained that fracking can pollute water supplies. That has raised calls for increased regulation on the use of the process to produce natural gas, which is a cornerstone fuel of the Obama Administration's energy policy.

Advances in drilling technology such as fracking have revolutionized U.S. energy markets, opening up the potential of vast reserves of natural gas in shale deposits. Surging production from these areas have pushed natural gas prices down, making it relatively cheap compared to oil.

Gas drilling in Pennsylvania, and in particular in the Marcellus Shale, has drawn the attention of major energy companies due to estimates that the region holds enough gas to meet total U.S. needs for a decade or more.

The blowout, which happens when a driller loses control of a well, could stoke the fierce debate about whether fracking should be allowed to continue unabated in the United States.

The timing is particularly problematic for the industry. On April 20, 2010, a blowout of a BP Plc well in the Gulf of Mexico led to an explosion that killed 11 workers and released nearly 5 million barrels of oil that fouled the shorelines of four Gulf Coast states.