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'Fracking' risks found to have been diminished UB study cites oversight, methods in Shale region

A new study by the University at Buffalo concludes that state oversight and better industry practices have significantly reduced the risk of major environmental problems stemming from drilling high-volume natural gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania.

The report, which examined nearly 3,000 reported violations at almost 4,000 Pennsylvania natural gas wells between January 2008 and August 2011, found that nearly two-thirds of the violations were administrative in nature, and less than 2 in 5 were linked to environmental concerns.

The report, released Tuesday by UB's new Shale Resources and Society Institute, also found that during 2008 there were slightly less than 3 environmental violations for every 5 wells drilled, or 58.2 percent. In the first eight months of 2011, there was a little more than 1 environmental violation for every 4 new wells drilled, or 26.5 percent -- less than half the 2008 level.

"Regulatory oversight has been quite effective in Pennsylvania in ensuring the safe development of natural gas resources," said Timothy J. Considine, a University of Wyoming economics professor and the lead author of the UB report.

"One of our surprising findings is that the regulatory oversight and environmental regulation has reduced the incidence of environmental events," he said. "I can guess this is likely to continue because the regulatory structure has been refined and updated and modified."

Considine's previous research, often funded by the drilling industry, has highlighted the potential economic impact of natural gas drilling, using a controversial technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," that critics say poses a grave threat to water supplies and the environment.

The UB institute, so far, has been funded solely by the university, said John P. Martin, the institute's director and one of the report's authors. Considine said his involvement in the study was funded by the University of Wyoming.

Critics, however, noted that much of Considine's funding on other research projects has come from the drilling industry. "He's extremely cozy with the industry," said Kevin Connor, co-director of the Public Accountability Institute, a local activist group that currently is studying the gas drilling issue. He has a history of working within the natural gas fracking industry."

Opponents also have focused on the cumulative impact of environmental violations, and the study confirmed that the number of violations has increased as more wells have been drilled, even if the rate of incidents per well has improved.

"In just four years, this report shows that there have been major land spills, water contamination and other major problems in Pennsylvania," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the advocacy group Food and Water Watch, based in Washington, D.C.

"We don't know what will happen long-term," she said. "Research published last month, for example, shows that fracking can enable contaminates to migrate thousands of feet underground, over a long period of time, potentially reaching drinking water aquifers."

Considine, however, defended the study as a "dispassionate look at the facts."

New York, which lies over vast amounts of natural gas trapped in a swath of the Marcellus Shale that stretches across much of the Southern Tier, has banned the drilling of horizontal natural gas wells that use fracking while the state Department of Environmental Conservation develops new regulations. Those rules, first released in preliminary form last year, still are under review.

Martin said New York's proposed regulations would have helped avoid or mitigate the 25 major environmental events in Pennsylvania that were studied in the report. Most of the 845 environmental violations were minor in nature, such as a gallon of diesel fuel or antifreeze spilling on the ground, the report said.

"While prior research has anecdotally reviewed state regulations, now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates, without ambiguity, that state regulation coupled with improvements in industry practices results in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year," Considine said.

Those 25 major events included nine spills on land, eight spills that contaminated local water supplies, four incidents involving well blowouts and venting, and two each involving gas migration and major site restoration issues. All but six have been cleaned up, the authors said.

"The majority of the events were due to operator error, negligence or a failure to follow proper procedures while drilling," the report said. "This suggests that the industry has room for improvement and the frequency of environmental events can be reduced."

In New York, the Marcellus Shale stretches for more than 20,500 square miles beneath 23 southern counties. The most gas is likely to come from areas where the shale is thickest and deepest underground, primarily in areas along the Pennsylvania border, especially in Broome and Tioga counties and parts of Chenango and Chemung counties.

Considine's previous research has estimated that allowing natural gas drilling in New York's portion of the Marcellus Shale could generate $173 million in spending next year, which then would jump to $1.9 billion in 2016 and $2.2 billion in 2021. He estimated that Marcellus drilling could support more than 15,000 jobs by 2016.

The authors said New York regulators have "the luxury of learning from the experience in Pennsylvania."

Some of the "strict procedures" included in New York's draft rules may help avoid or lessen the impact of incidents, the report said.

"New York's current regulations would prevent or mitigate each of the identified major environmental events that occurred in Pennsylvania," Martin said. "It's important that states continue to learn from the regulatory experience -- both strengths and weaknesses -- of others."

According to the report, "Many others, however, might provide little extra protection, while creating restrictions that ultimately stifle industry and investment."