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Fracking profits vs. clean water: MD struggles with new fracking setback rules

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Though 82,000 natural gas fracking wells have been drilled since 2005, there has been little to no scientific research studying fracking’s impacts on people, air, water and climate.

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Yet, there’s one indisputable, scientifically-supported fact concerning fracking in the Marcellus shale region, which includes Maryland’s western counties. The closer a water well is to a fracking well, the higher the chance of methane (natural gas) contamination. See photo #1.

As Maryland develops fracking regulations, determining safe buffers, known as setback distances, between gas wells and water wells is critical, and not just for methane migration, but also for potential chemical spills above land and human exposure to fracking air pollution. See photo #6 and #7.

Live within 1 kilometer of gas well, high likelihood of stray gases

Duke University scientists published peer-reviewed and independent research that found that when a private drinking water well is within 1 kilometer (3,280 feet or 9 football fields) from a fracking well in the Marcellus shale region, there is a high likelihood (600 percent more likely) that deep shale methane gas will migrate into private drinking water wells and contaminate the water wells. (See photo #1) Maryland’s current setback distance is 1,000 feet, about 3 football fields.

Is methane in a water well a big deal?

The short answer: kaboom, suffocation and real estate woes.

Inside the home, because the stray gases don’t physically mix with the water, when the methane-enriched water exits a shower head, sink faucet or toilet, it off-gases, or floats upward. The stray gases can then accumulate in tight spaces, say near a ceiling, and are highly flammable.

Methane isn’t regulated in Maryland, but the U.S. Department of the Interior has set an action limit between 10 to 28 mg/L. If methane levels are greater than 28 mg/L, as many home’s levels were in the Duke research, the government suggests “immediate well venting to the atmosphere,” as well as installing methane alarms and aerating the pipes to avoid fires and blasts.

Do people “huff” methane?

Though every governmental source, including Maryland, state that methane isn’t toxic to humans, there isn’t one bit of evidence to support if that’s true or false. As Dr. Avner Vengosh, co-author of the Duke University study explained, “There are no medical studies on the health impacts of methane gas inhalation.”

What is known is that when a person breathes in too much methane, oxygen is replaced and humans suffocate. As oxygen is replaced by methane, persons can feel dizzy, faint, and/or experience a headache. Before methane alarms, canary birds alerted coal miners if methane levels were high.

House for Sale: 4 bedrooms and a methane alarm and well vents

Bubbly water wells, methane gas alarms, well vents and aerators usually don't top the list for staging a home to sell. Another Duke University study found that just the possibility of contamination devalues properties with a water well near a gas well 24 percent. This drop offsets the 11 percent boost from signing a gas lease, leaving a 13 percent net drop in home value.

Maryland splits the setback distance

Comparatively speaking, Maryland is unique for in 2011 Governor O’Malley issued an executive moratorium on the new fracking energy extraction; 17 states jumped in head first and in 9 short years have drilled 82,000 high-volume-horizontal-hydraulic wells. The moratorium’s goal was to give the Governor’s 15-person fracking commission time to study fracking and assist regulators who are developing comprehensive safeguards and regulations. Maryland’s updated gas drilling rules are due this August.

Choosing how far gas wells can be from rural water wells puts a spotlight on the tensions between the oil and gas industry/pro-gas groups and citizens/environmentalists. Four members of the Governor’s 15-person commission challenged Maryland regulators that the current 1,000 foot setback distance is too close to properties given the Duke University methane migration research.

Paul Roberts, the commission’s citizen rep and owner of a Garrett County winery, helped facilitate a video-conference between the Duke University’s research co-author, state commissioners, and regulators. Said Dr. Vengosh: "If I were in your position, I would try to be as cautious as possible."

Even with this scientific data, Maryland environmental regulators - the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) - have proposed a 2,000 foot distance between a private drinking water well and a gas well. But, the setback distance can shrink back to 1,000 feet if a gas well is down river from an underground water source and if the homeowner okays the smaller buffer between their water well and the gas well.

Essentially, the state proposes to split the difference between the current 1,000 foot setback and the 3,280 foot safer distance to avoid methane migration supported by the Duke team’s research.

When asked what strategy was used to choose a 2,000 foot setback, MDE and DNR jointly explained;The Departments are proposing that no gas well pad be located within 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well, except that the well pad may be located between 1,000 and 2,000 feet of a private drinking water well if the applicant for the gas well permit demonstrates through a hydrogeologic study that the proposed gas well pad is not upgradient of the private drinking water well and the owner of the private drinking water well consents. With the additional protection that good site selection, well casing and cementing, integrity testing, and rigorous pre-drilling and post-drilling monitoring afford, the Departments consider the 2,000 foot setback adequately protective. Our understanding is that the 2,000 foot setback is greater than the setback imposed by any other state or municipality. This is one of the many examples of Maryland’s proposed best practices are raising the bar and leading by example.

Click here to view the joint MDE and DNR answers to this writer’s set of questions and also to see Mr. Robert’s analysis of the Duke University study.

Mr. Roberts has clashed with regulators many times about setback distances. “This is the governor’s call,” he says. “But the single most important step we can take to reduce fracking’s risks is to move people back from drilling to distances research shows reduce health effects and protect properties. Other states won’t and we can see the devastation. There are hundreds of lawsuits now. The Governor said our work should be guided by science, yet Maryland administrators insist they know more than the scientists.”

6th grade math is the 600 pound gorilla

The real setback distance tension between the oil and gas industry and regulators is explained by the simple equation for the area of a circle: πr². Larger setback distances greatly reduce the land that the gas industry can drill. See photo #2.

Based on Texas’ 200 foot setback distance, a gas well can’t be drilled inside a theoretical 3 acre circle around a water well.

Yet, in Pennsylvania or Colorado where buffers were recently increased to 1,000 feet, 5 times greater than Texas’, the no-fracking-buffer grows to 72 acres around a well, a 24-fold increase.

The safer 3,280 foot setback suggested by Duke scientists equates to a potential 776 acre buffer surrounding a drinking water well from fracking wells. And that limitation won’t fly with the gas industry.

“Drill, Baby, Drill!”

In 2013, the U.S. oil and gas industry generated 45 percent of Top 10 public company revenues and 48 percent of profits.

As our country’s top dog economic sector by a long shot with $992 billion in 2013 sales and $77 billion in profits, feeding this economic machine is paramount.

If there’s any doubt as to the role fracking plays in U.S. energy sector’s growth, it’s important to know two key stats:

First, our government forecasts shale gas production will double by 2040. (See photos 3, 4, 5)

Second, fracking technology has unlocked massive shale oil reserves previously untouchable and our country’s reserve is estimated to be the 2nd largest in the world behind Russia according to the Energy Information Administration. (table 5)

Being sensible and cautious by regulating larger setback distances between fracking wells and private drinking water wells just limits the area that gas companies can drill for oil and gas and that limitation doesn’t fit into the energy strategy the ‘powers that be’ have developed.

A high wire act

And that’s the tight rope states like Maryland and others walk as they try to balance a country hungry for natural gas (and oil) profits with safeguarding citizens from known hazards.

Giving Maryland credit where it’s due, state regulators are attempting to improve and refine current gas drilling regulations far better than any other state. And, fracking-specific regulations are being set before drilling may happen in Maryland; other states have been playing catch-up as fracking complaints (chemical spills, water and air contamination, and liability issues) started gushing to the surface.

Yet, it seems fair to ask that if the ‘powers that be’, who often reside far from fracking fields, had the prospect of having fracking wells within football fields of their properties, would regulations be tighter?

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