Scott Detrow of StateImpact Pennsylvania contributed reporting to this article.
Gas and oil well blowouts are the stuff of legend in Texas. But in Pennsylvania, a state with little modern experience with wells, a surge in drilling has some residents on edge. The thought of a geyser of fire erupting in an otherwise peaceful pasture can sound like a nightmare.
“(A blowout) scares the heck out of me,” said Skip Roupp , the Deputy Emergency Management Director of Bradford County in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Experts told him to expect one major blowout for every thousand wells drilled. The well count in Pennsylvania is already at 3,000.
“We’re due for a major blowout at some point,” Roupp said.
And when a blowout does happen, Pennsylvania has been warning its local fire departments to, in essence, let it burn. Putting it out will be left to crews from Texas.
“We found that because Pennsylvania is structured with small volunteer (fire) departments in every community, it was a huge undertaking,” said Casey Davis, an executive with Wild Well Control in Houston.
Working with the Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner’s office, Wild Well Control said it has trained some 4,500 of Pennsylvania’s “first responders,” many of them volunteer firefighters.
“Your first thought is, your fire department is going to arrive, get their water flowing, and extinguish that fire,” said Davis. But his message to them is the opposite. Even if firefighters were successful in putting out a high-pressure natural gas fire, the result would be an out-of-control release of more explosive natural gas. In other words, it’s better to let the gas burn until crews with specialized equipment can get there to stop the flow.
“We are stockpiled with equipment and appropriate personnel that can respond right in Pennsylvania,” explained Davis, who said the company would rely first on gear kept on tractor trailers that sit in a hanger at a regional airport in North Central Pennsylvania.
Blowouts are rare. But there has been concern that with the boom in drilling, exploration companies will have to rely on less-experienced drilling crews as the demand for labor grows: less experience, more risk of accidents.
In Texas, where the state said 7,000 new wells were completed just last year and where there are over a quarter million wells in operation, state records show that from 2006 to July 2011, there were 127 blowouts. Fourteen resulted in fires. Blowouts killed three people and injured fourteen in that period.
In Pennsylvania, the surge in drilling in the Marcellus shale began in 2008 and a total of some 3,000 wells have now been drilled. There have been two incidents where operators “lost control” of their wells. In 2010, one of the blowouts resulted in natural gas spewing into the air for 16 hours, according to a report by an advisory commission to the Pennsylvania governor’s office. There have been no major fires yet.
But here have been complaints. Last April, a drilling operation in Pennsylvania’s Bradford County went out of control, spewing 10,000 gallons of a chemical fluid across a pasture and into a creek. Local fire officials said a well control company, Boots &Coots (a Houston-based competitor of Wild Well Control Inc.), took too long to get to the scene.
The company drilling the well was Chesapeake Energy, based in Oklahoma City and one of the biggest players in the drilling boom. In a lengthy response emailed to StateImpact Texas, Chesapeake’s Brian Grove, Senior Director of Corporate Development, refuted the criticism:
“The rapid response by Chesapeake’s local well-control team, additional support provided by Boots and Coots personnel, and the assistance provided by local officials and emergency responders cumulatively resulted in an incident that, while serious and regrettable, resulted in no injuries, no fatalities and no significant environmental impact…”
Chesapeake said it had a “well control team member” on the scene in less than an hour and that within six hours began gathering equipment and started the process of plugging the well. Chesapeake said at some later point, “technical specialists” from Boots & Coots arrived.
The well control business seems to fit Texas, or its stereotype, to a T: risk-takers battling fiery monsters erupting from deep underground. Or under the sea. In the sprawling complex of buildings and storage lots on the far north side of Houston, Wild Well Control has one piece of equipment with a special place in blowout history.
Sitting in a lot with the heavy equipment used to stop runaway wells is a giant shear. As the company is proud to tell you, it was used in what was the final and successful assault on the biggest blowout ever in the Gulf of Mexico, the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig in 2010, better known as the “BP spill”. The shear cut the damaged “riser” pipe coming up from the sea floor, enabling robots to attach a valve that finally stopped the blowout after spewing oil for three months.