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Gas eruption fallout

Blowout preventer fails after fracking


CLEARFIELD COUNTY, PA — A geyser of gas and fracking fluid that erupted out of control for 16 hours on June 3 and 4, at times shooting up to 75 feet in the air at a Marcellus Shale drilling operation in Clearfield County, has lead to inevitable comparisons with the continuing hemorrhaging of oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

In both cases, failure of the blowout preventer—a series of valves that allow operators to control pressure at the top of the well—was part of the picture, if not the entire story.

In the case of the Clearfield County incident, which occurred about 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh in Moshannon State Forest, Neal Weaver, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), wrote in an email, “It is clear that the blowout preventer failed, but our investigation will not be limited to just that issue, but the drilling, fracking and post-fracking operations as a whole.”

The company that owns the well, EOG resources, formerly known as Enron Oil & Gas Company, called the incident a “control issue” and noted that no injuries resulted from it and no houses were damaged. Critics counter that there are no homes within a mile of the well, and that campers in the area had to be evacuated, and emergency management officials declared a no-fly zone over the area.

The DEP called the incident serious. “The event at the well site could have been a catastrophic incident that endangered life and property,” said DEP secretary John Hanger. “This was not a minor accident, but a serious incident that will be fully investigated by this agency with the appropriate and necessary actions taken quickly.”

Governor Ed Rendell ordered work on all EOG wells temporarily halted, and said that the state would not be relying only on its own experts to determine exactly what caused the explosion, but would also engage outside experts to “get to the bottom of what happened.”

The incident will likely be discussed by lawmakers in Harrisburg as they debate the merits of implementing a natural gas severance tax in the state, and consider whether to pass a moratorium on the leasing of public lands for gas drilling.

Senator Bob Casey, who in 2009 introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would require drilling companies to disclose the contents of fracking fluid, said this was a situation that could have been much worse.

Casey said, “Natural gas drilling offers Pennsylvania a great economic opportunity; however, incidents like this blowout are a reminder that there are dangers and that precautions must be taken to protect the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians.”

Other explosions

In an unrelated incident, a Marcellus Shale gas well being drilled in Moundsville, WV, some 50 miles south of Pittsburgh, erupted in flames on June 7, and seven workers who suffered burns were sent to a local hospital and reported to be in fair condition.

The drilling company had been drilling through an abandoned coal mine when a gas pocket suddenly ignited, sending flames up to 70 feet into the air.

The fire was expected to remain burning for several days or more as emergency workers attempted to cap the wells. According to various officials, the fire posed no further threat to buildings or individuals.

In a third incident involving natural gas, a pipeline explosion on June 7 in north Texas killed one worker and sent several others to local hospitals.

The blast was reportedly triggered when a crew installing utility poles accidentally struck the gas pipeline, and sent flames shooting 40 feet into the air.

The cause of the blast is being investigated by the Texas Railroad Commission.