Pennsylvania

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In Northeast Pennsylvania, Methane Migration Means Flammable Puddles And 30-Foot Geysers

Scott Detrow / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A Leroy Township, Bradford County resident lights a sample of methane gas on fire. The gas has been bubbling into puddles and creeks for more than two months.

Last September, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon declared to a Philadelphia energy conference that the problem of methane migrating through the ground near natural gas drilling sites had been fixed.  “Problem identified. Problem solved,” he told an industry-heavy crowd at the Philadelphia Convention Center.

Nearly a year later,  Bradford County resident Michael Leighton is worried about the flammable gas seeping into his woods.

Leighton lives about a half-mile from a Chesapeake Energy well that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection suspects leaked methane gas through holes in its casing. For more than two months, gas has been gurgling into creeks and wetlands on Leighton’s property. That’s in addition to the methane in Leighton’s water well, and the methane in his basement.

“It bothers me because this is a big investment for us,” said Leighton, who moved with his wife to Leroy Township from Chester County two years ago. “This is our retirement home. I built this house, built the barn.” Now, he’s worried about drinking his own water. “They say it’s safe to drink, but I hesitate.”

Chesapeake isn’t the only energy company the Department of Environmental Protection is investigating for ongoing methane migration problems. 13 miles west of Leroy, in Union Township, Tioga County, Shell is trying to stop a month-old suspected methane leak by flaring off natural gas and plugging an abandoned gas well discovered near its drilling site.

Flammable Gas Bubbles To The Surface

Michael Leighton’s problems began May 19. That’s when a neighbor called and asked if there was anything unusual about his water. “He said his [well] was bubbling over,” Leighton told StateImpact Pennsylvania. “I went down and looked at my well, and it was bubbling up.”

“I have 80 to 100 feet of headspace between my water and the top of my well,” Leighton said. “And the water actually boiled to the top.” The well, which supplies his drinking water, is located about 10 feet from Leighton’s house. He surveyed the rest of his property, and found nearly 20 miniature geysers squirting water and gas several inches into the air.

Soon, Department of Environmental Protection and Chesapeake Energy inspectors were on the scene. “My basement had very high levels of methane,” Leighton recalled. “At one point they gave us an evacuation notice.” Leighton and his wife Nancy refused to leave, though, so the fire department installed ventilation fans in the  basement, and cut holes in his wall to pipe fresh air in.

Two months later, a ventilation pipe and filtration system installed by Chesapeake is removing the gas from the Leightons’ water. But flammable methane is still gurgling into the streams and wetlands on their property.

How does Michael Leighton know the methane is flammable? During an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania, he watched as a neighboring property owner held a mason jar over a bubbling puddle, took the sample inside his shed, held a lighter over the jar, and unscrewed the lid. The gas caught fire, producing a brief, blue flame.

You can watch the video below:

Leighton has owned his Bradford County property for 10 years, and said he never saw any bubbling until May 19. What happened? The Leightons live about a half-mile from Chesapeake Energy’s Morse well pad. In a letter, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer spelled out state regulators’ initial findings: They think natural gas escaped — migrated — through perforations in the Morse well’s casing during a bungled repair job. (Read the letter at the bottom of this article.)

The Department hasn’t reached any final conclusions yet, but this wouldn’t be the first time Chesapeake drilling has created problems in Bradford County. In April 2011, a Chesapeake well suffered a blowout, and spilled more than 10,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid into a Leroy Township field. Some of the fluid made its way into a nearby creek, and state regulators eventually slapped Chesapeake with a $190,000 fine.

One month later, Chesapeake Energy was hit with a $900,000 fine — the largest environmental fine in Pennsylvania history – for failing to fix faulty well casing that caused methane gas to seep through the ground and into 16 Bradford County families’ water supplies.

In fact, the very well pad that state regulators think contaminated the Leightons’ water supply was cited for “improper well casing” in August 2010.  (Check out the well and violation information with StateImpact Pennsylvania’s interactive Shale Play app.) 

The Morse pad’s damage isn’t limited to Leighton’s property, either. On June 8, the Clean Air Council, an environmental group, documented what it characterized as a “plume” of methane gas hanging over portions of Leroy Township. According to the group’s report, “The size and rate of expansion of the plume suggested large amounts of methane were being emitted into the atmosphere.”

A Geyser In Tioga County

A picture acquired by StateImpact Pennsylvania shows the Tioga County methane geyser five days after it first appeared.

For the people who live near Shell’s Cochran well pad in Union Township, Tioga County, the problems started in a similar fashion: a phone call about an overflowing well.

It was Thursday, June 14, and a water well located inside the Ralston Hunting Club’s cabin was flooding the building. Since Shell was drilling at three nearby locations, someone went to look for one of the company’s technicians. Shell quickly notified the Department of Environmental Protection, and moved club members away from the cabin.

Soon, someone discovered a bigger problem: a geyser shooting methane-infused water more than 30 feet in the air. “That’s when all hell broke lose,” said a neighboring landowner — who, like others StateImpact Pennsylvania talked to about the Union Township problems, requested anonymity, due to ongoing negotiations with Shell over damages and leasing.

A video shot five days after the methane problems began shows the geyser spewing water and gas:

Shell and the Department of Environmental Protection issued an evacuation request for the hunting club and the surrounding one-mile radius, which, due to Union Township’s rural nature, only affected a handful of people.

Shell immediately began flaring off gas at three nearby well pads, in order to reduce underground methane pressure. A week later, the geyser disappeared and the hunting club’s water well was no longer flooding.  But more than a month after the migration problems first surfaced, gas is still bubbling in a nearby creek, and hunting club members are still barred from their club’s cabin.

Shell suspects an old, abandoned gas well on the club’s property is responsible for the migration problems, and is constructing a new well pad next to the 80-year-old hole in order to plug and seal the well.

The abandoned well, thought to have been drilled in the 1930s, provided an elevator of sorts, bringing methane gas unearthed by Shell’s present-day drilling up toward the surface. The loosened methane dispersed into the creek, the water well and other locations through cracks in the ground. In the case of the roadside geyser, it shot through a spot where someone had, for some unknown reason, inserted a deep PVC pipe into the ground.

“Natural gas wants to migrate up,” explained Dave Yoxtheimer, a geologist who works at Penn State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. “It’s lighter, it’s less dense. And it finds itself getting trapped in these shallower, more porous formations. And during the drilling process you can go down through these shallower formations. As you’re drilling through, suddenly you’ve created a conduit for those gasses to escape.

If a driller doesn’t surround a gas well with the proper steel and cement casing, the gas can escape, and migrate up to the surface through faults and water wells. “What you’ve done,” Yoxtheimer explained, is “catalyzed the process of natural gas drifting up over geologic time.”

“It Ain’t Worth Dirt”

It’s not clear when either methane migration problem will subside. A Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said Shell’s efforts to plug the abandoned well “could take some time.”

In a letter to the Clean Air Council about its Bradford County air quality study, Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer said the Chesapeake-related situation “is for the most part over.” (Read the letter at the bottom of this article.) But StateImpact Pennsylvania documented the migration on Michael Leighton’s property — as well as consistent bubbling in nearby Towanda Creek — four days after Krancer sent this letter. Leighton, who’s still dealing with regular methane inspections, clunky machines in his basement, and flammable gas on his property, doesn’t feel like the situation is “for the most part over.”

“The newspapers keep minimizing the damage here, but it’s here,” Leighton said, while pointing out the bubbling methane in the woods near his house. “And people think we’re radicals, but we’re not. We’re just upset about the condition of our property, and we want things fixed. I want my real estate back to where it was before. And right now, it ain’t worth dirt.”

 

Read DEP Secretary Michael Krancer’s letter to the Clean Air Council, which details DEP’s preliminary findings on Leroy Township’s methane problems:

 

Comments

  • Photog

    Tom Corbett sold the rights to drilling companies for millions in campaign funds.  He bought the PA govenorship with “gifts” from the drillers & energy companies.  No one in the state or those companies gives a flying fig about the damage to homes & lives in those areas.  They’re there for the sole reason to make as much money as possibe in as short a period of time just like some loging companies & coal companies.   Outside of a class action law suit against the drillers & Corbett the people have little recourse. 

  • Philo99

    The greatest economic boon this state has seen since the discovery of coal and the envio-wackos will try to stop by any lie they can come up with. Even though coverting coal powered power plants to natural gas will cut CO2 emissions by 50% or more.

    • Charles Lamoureux

       GET AN EDUCATION!…FOX NEWS NETWORK WON’T PROVIDE YOU WITH THE INFORMATION YOU NEED TO OFFER AN “EDUCATED” OPINION!…ABOUT ANYTHING!

    • http://twitter.com/realsteveeboy steveeboy

       you’re full of it buddy.  I have seen this with my own two eyes.  learn to read.  “peo­ple think we’re rad­i­cals, but we’re not. We’re just upset about
      the con­di­tion of our prop­erty, and we want things fixed. I want my
      real estate back to where it was before.”  the people involved are not “enviro-wackos.” The guy is a good american, a sportsman, and a veteran who worked his whole life at his own business. He played by the rules and lived the American Dream and built a retirement home only to see the water and land ruined by the gas company that has paid off Corbett and the other PA politicians.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/T44YO4NNTVIZB3KO5OP6TXBDQE Mel, Liss, Missy

      The “lies” of the “envio-wackos” are well-documented facts. Do a file review at your regional DEP office of contamination/methane migration/bentonite blowou/violation reports. Spewing ignorant opinions is no better than telling lies. Educate yourself. The greatest economic boon since coal? Have you seen what coal has done to Appalachia? The economic COSTS that have been incurred by individuals, entire communities, the environemet, and our state to ATTEMPT to clean up the damage. And natural gas will only cut CO2 emissions by 50% is there is not a simultaneous loss of tree cover. Shale gas has already cost hundreds across the state, let alone the country, their water. We DON’T NEED to swap gas for water in order to cut emissions and regenerate our economy. We have other technologies, and other already sustainable economies in PA…tourism, recreation, renewable energy, sustaineable farming, permaculture, and the plethora of technological industries that are churning out new opportunities every day. Putting all our eggs in the shale gas basket in order to get rich quick is foolish and dangerous. 

      • Philo99

        With millions of wells drilled over the last 50 years. There has not been a single proven case, across the entire United states, of fracking contaminating ground water. Stop with your lies.
         
        We are talking about American jobs for American workers. If you think a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions in nothing, then you are nothing but a joke like the rest of your environmental terrorist friends.

        • http://twitter.com/realsteveeboy steveeboy

           again, can you even READ?  the above letter from the DEP notes the following: “an evaluation of Chesapeake’s nearby Morse well pad was undertaken, revealing
          the presence of a failed packer that was installed to protect previously installed up~hole
          perforations, which were squeezed with cement. Those remedial activities occurred as part of a
          remediation effort that was being conducted Lmder a previous Consent Order and Agreement
          between Chesapeake and DEP. During the operations to repair/replace the packer, the up-hole
          perforations were exposed to gas pressure from deeper in the well. It appears that the pressure
          may have caused gas to escape through these perforations into the shallow subsurface geologic
          section”

          GOT IT?

          DEP likes to couch it in weasel words, but there was no gas in Mike Leighton’s well or house–and now there is…

          That well was drilled for fracking.  It was faulty.  Leaks from its casing allowed gas to pollute the groundwater of four families in LeRoy, PA!

          So stop repeating your gashole propaganda.

          They drill, their drilling upsets the underground geology and causes  methane migration.  This methane migration destroys property and wells.

          • VAppalachia1

            Like Range Resources says in their frequent TV ads:
            “Drilling is just the beginning.”

        • Maggie Henry

          You are the one lying, either that or you are drunk on the industry koolaide! Who are you Philo99?

      • VAppalachia1

        According to a Nature Conservancy study from 2010, if industry develops shale gas to the degree it says it wants to (and of course, with the Corbett administration, they have carte blanche) the forest canopy in PA’s state forests would be reduced by 20%.  In other words, every fifth tree would be cut down.  (please see:  http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/pennsylvania/newsroom/the-nature-conservancy-in-pennsylvania-nature-conservancy-study-reveals.xml)

        Will Penn’s Woods have to consider a name change?

    • http://www.facebook.com/TXsharon Sharon Wilson

      Too bad all those fugitive emissions, “scheduled” and “accidental” releases cancels out any gain achieved by the cleaner burn of methane. 

      • Maggie Henry

        There are no gains ! By the time you subtract all the pollutants that go into fracking you are dirtier than coal and that doesn’t count methane release into the environment, which over a 100 year period is 32 times more potent than CO2. Fracking is a loser for everyone, except the fracker!

  • Mandy F

    A lie you say..this is not a lie, this is my home, my water.  Used to think similiar, would hear stories and think people were exagerrating or something.  Now..it’s our home and our 4 children, along with our neighbors who have bad water. Our water can’t be safely brought into our home anymore without first going through a treatment system.  Also flammable levels of gas coming out of the ground.   Believe me I would love it if this story was a lie..unfortunately it’s not. 
    I see your point..there is more jobs and money here then ever before, there’s no denying that just like there is no denying that there are a lot of problems associated with this.  It would be great if they can stick around and continue to drill while being a lot more careful.  They say it’s safe yet they have taken away my safety in my own home. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/TXsharon Sharon Wilson

      What is a job worth? 
      Is it worth a child’s health?
      Is it worth a family’s well-being?
      worth the value in your neighbor’s home…worth drinking water…worth clean air…

      Americans are better people than that. We need to find another way.

  • gawker

    Krancer sounds his usual defensive and condescending.  I’m sure in the not-too-distant future we’ll see him working for the gas industry, officially, at a much higher salary than he now has, a la Tom Ridge.

  • Poliver319

    I think the key thing to note here is that the problem of methane migration is with these wells that were drilled 50-80 years ago, well that are not case and are essentially open holes.  Current drilling practices involve setting a casing pipe at various depths during the drilling process including a production casing which extends from the surface to the bottom of the well.  Cement is then pumped down the casing and up the outside filling the annulus.  This seals the well from the surrounding rock formations.  This report and many others I have read concerning methane migration clearly state that the problem is with these older wells that are not cased.  Wells which the DEP has never and does not currently monitor.  Yes, the fracking process does allow the gas to migrate….at a depth of over a mile down, and it apparently is migrating up through these older wells.  Being a geologist, one who lives and was educated in PA., I have to ask where is all the money (several million per month is the figure I have seen) going that the state is earning in not only taxes on the operating companies, but also all of the royalties the state is earning on the wells drilled on state land????  It would seem if the state was truly concerned about this problem they would be investing money (and applying for federal aid from the superfund/brownfield program) to install casing in these wells.  This would essentially solve these problems of gas migration and allow the current drilling to go on with little to no danger of aquifer contamination.  I am in full agreement that something should be done to rectify this problem, however I do not think the answer is to ban all drilling in the state.  This is a great resource for the state and country, one we should be able to capitalize on…it just needs to be done correctly which means the state needs to start addressing the very real problem of these old abandoned wells that are allowing the gas to migrate upwards and leak in to the aquifer.

    • Mandy F

      The well that caused our problem was just drilled 2 years ago.  Although from what I understand they are doing them a bit differently now.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TXsharon Sharon Wilson

    Methane seeps seem to follow industry around. I took this video of us lighting the bubbles in a horse pasture in the Barnett Shale. http://youtu.be/VLgph4NMXrw  

    The baseline testing done shortly before fracking on the water well of this landowner said the water was clean and safe. Follow up testing shortly after fracking showed high levels of MTBE which is found in diesel fuel. 

    The Braden Head Pressure was exceeded at this well but the Texas Railroad Commission said there was no problem. 

  • Michael Wright

    There an even more significant problem with methane leakage. Since methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, any leakage from these wells will only accelerate climate change. This is not based on perceived heresay on the part of scientists or political “spin” – it’s just pure physics and chemistry . . .

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