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CPBJ Extra Blog

Dueling Marcellus Shale videos, part 3

By - Last modified: March 26, 2013 at 9:32 AM
Tim Stuhldreher
Tim Stuhldreher

For the past two weeks, I've been blogging about two online videos on the natural-gas-drilling industry, the Marcellus Shale Coalition's “Methane: A Natural Element” and Josh Fox's “The Sky Is Pink.”

(For the first two entries, see here and here.)

Last week's blog covered the first part of my talk with Fred Baldassare, former stray gas inspector for the state Department of Environmental Protection and one of the experts who appear in the coalition's video.

As I explained, Baldassare distinguishes between the act of hydraulic fracturing specifically and natural-gas well drilling in general. There are no documented cases of fracking leading to methane contaminating a water table, he said, but there are cases of drilling activity doing so — notably in Dimock in an incident Baldassare investigated in 2009.

So it's accurate to say Marcellus Shale drilling has led to methane migration in Pennsylvania.

I asked Baldassare about Josh Fox's contention in "The Sky Is Pink" that there is no such thing as safe drilling, because gas wells have to maintain their integrity forever.

Baldassare was not too impressed.

"Wholesale, we do not have big problems with gas migration from legacy wells," he said.

People often forget that Pennsylvania has hosted shallow-gas drilling for many decades. Perhaps 300,000 wells have been drilled here, according to StateImpact Pennsylvania; plugging them helps ensure methane won't migrate to the surface.

Wells aren't plugged and capped until they're basically empty, Baldassare said. And at that point, the risk of gas migration is comparatively low — there isn't much gas to migrate or pressure to induce it to do so.

By and large, legacy wells have maintained their integrity, he said. The major problems come when people don't realize they're there and cut off a wellhead by mistake during new construction, he said. (Or drill a new well nearby, as in the StateImpact article referenced above.)

Pennsylvania's new drilling, cementing and casing requirements should make today's wells even more robust, Baldassare said. There will always be some risk, he said, but not the kind of unmanageable, systemic and perpetual risk that Fox describes, he said.

"If he's saying those kinds of things, then I don't think he understands the process very well," he said.

Fox, for his part, contends he is basing his views on the industry's own documents. If you're curious, the articles and reports seen in "The Sky Is Pink" are collected, with annotations, in a PDF available on the Rolling Stone website.

Next week will be the final installment in this series. I'll finally get to the U.S. Geological Survey's Dennis Risser and explain how my conversation with him stretched what was supposed to be a single blog entry into four.

• • •

DEP Secretary Mike Krancer's announcement on Friday that he is stepping down came as something of a surprise; Krancer told the Pittsburgh Business Times he had planned to serve a full term but came to realize he wanted to spend more time with his family as his daughters approach college age.

In expressing confidence in Corbett's ability to find a replacement, Krancer revealed he knows baseball history better than I do: "Who knows, I may be the Wally Pipp of history and the next guy may be the Lou Gehrig," he said.

Wally Pipp, it turns out, is the man who took "the two most expensive aspirin in history."

The Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage has a good rundown of the reaction to Krancer's departure. As of Monday, this PennLive reader's poll had 80 percent of respondents saying Krancer has been "too favorable to big business and Marcellus shale drillers."

Tim Stuhldreher covers banking, finance, energy and environment. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at You can also follow him on Twitter, @timstuhldreher.

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