Fracking Failures: Oil and Gas Industry Environmental Violations in Pennsylvania and What They Mean for the U.S.
Oil and gas industry spokespeople routinely maintain that the risks of fracking can be minimized by best practices and appropriate state regulation. Not only is this false - fracking is harmful even when drillers follow all the rules - but, as this report shows, drillers regularly violate essential public health protections, undermining their own claims.
Fracking is dirty. From the very beginning of clearing a site for drilling, through extraction, transport and delivery of finished products, fracking poses significant risks to our air and water and to human health. People who live and work near fracking sites are at greater risk for respiratory and neurological diseases.
Oil and gas industry spokespeople routinely maintain that the risks of fracking can be minimized by best practices and appropriate state regulation. Not only is this false – fracking is harmful even when drillers follow all the rules – but drillers also regularly violate essential environmental and public health protections, undermining their own claims. A look at recent data from Pennsylvania, where key industry players pledged to clean up their acts, illustrates the frequency with which companies still break the rules.
In Pennsylvania, fracking companies violate rules and regulations meant to protect the environment and human health on virtually a daily basis. Between January 1, 2011, and August 31, 2014, the top 20 offending fracking companies committed an average of 1.5 violations per day.
Fracking operators in Pennsylvania have committed thousands of violations of oil and gas regulations since 2011. These violations are not “paperwork” violations, but lapses that pose serious risks to workers, the environment and public health, including:
- Allowing toxic chemicals to flow off drilling sites and into local soil and water. In July 2012, for example, Chief Oil & Gas was cited by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) when the company allowed 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid to flow off of its drilling site in Leroy Township, Bradford County, and into nearby Towanda Creek, causing a fish kill.
- Endangering drinking water through improper well construction. Well problems, including leaks, contaminated drinking water supplies in as many as 243 cases across Pennsylvania between December 2007 and August 2014 – 81 of them between 2011 and 2014. In one such case Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC was cited for failing to properly restore a water supply its fracking activities had contaminated.
- Dumping industrial waste into local waterways. One operator, EQT Production, was cited twice in 2012 by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for violations at a well in Duncan Township, Tioga County, that polluted a local stream.
- Otherwise disposing of waste improperly. In one 2012 incident at an Exco Resources well in Bell Township, Clearfield County, the company was cited for contaminating underground drinking water supplies as a result of leaks from a well drilled for the specific purpose of injecting toxic waste underground.
The list of top violators in Pennsylvania includes large, multi-national oil and gas industry operators and smaller, locally owned firms – and companies that promised to exceed state safety standards. (See Table ES-1.)
- Subsidiaries of Exxon-Mobil and Shell, along with Cabot and Chesapeake, rank among the top 10 for total violations.
- These and other top violators also have fracking operations or own mineral rights that would allow for future fracking in 23 other states: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
- Pennsylvania-based companies ranking among the top violators included Warren-based Pennsylvania General Energy, Pittsburgh-based EQT Production, Canonsburg-based CNX Gas (a subsidiary of Consol Energy), and Kittanning-based Snyder Bros., Inc.
- Top violators also include the four firms that told the public they would adhere to higher standards when they formed the Center for Sustainable Shale Development in 2013. Since then, those firms – EQT, Chevron Appalachia, Consol and Shell – have together committed at least 100 violations.
Table ES-1. Pennsylvania’s 20 Most Frequently Cited Fracking Companies, Ranked by Number of Environmental and Health Violations, January 2011-August 2014
Both large and small firms rank highly for number of violations when adjusted for the size of their fracking activities in Pennsylvania.
- Atlas Resources, based in Pittsburgh, drilled 11 wells between 2011 and August 2014 (among companies with at least five wells drilled), and was cited for 13 violations – or 1.18 violations per well drilled, ranking first. The company was followed by Exco Resources of Dallas; Halcon Operating Company of Houston; Houston-based Carrizo; and Kittanning, Pennsylvania-headquartered Snyder Brothers.
- Mieka, part of Texas-based Vadda Energy, ranked first for the average number of violations per well operated per reporting period (among companies operating at least five wells in at least one reporting period), with 0.46 violations per well per reporting period. The company was followed by Radnor, Pennsylvania-based Penn Virginia Oil and Gas; Enerplus Resources of Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Houston-based Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC; and XTO, a subsidiary of Irving, Texas-based ExxonMobil.
The number of violations that received citations from state officials is, in all likelihood, lower than the actual number of infractions, because of Pennsylvania’s consistent pattern of conducting fewer inspections than state rules require, and because inspectors regularly decline to issue violation notices when companies voluntarily agree to fix problems.
Studies in other states have shown similar problems of violations and environmental damage from fracking. There is little reason to believe, therefore, that fracking operations in Pennsylvania are substantively different from other states in their ability to cause harm or to commit repeated violations of health and safety laws.
The sheer number and severity of risks posed by fracking operations make constructing an adequate regulatory regime – much less enforcing it at thousands of wells and other sites – implausible. The industry’s persistent record of violations in Pennsylvania reinforces the case for the following policy recommendations:
- Banning fracking before it begins. As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has determined, this is the most prudent course for states to protect the environment and public health.
- In states like Pennsylvania where widespread fracking is already under way, a moratorium on all new well permits to limit the damage. For existing wells, states must adopt much more stringent protections and truly enforce them.
- All local communities should have the right to reject fracking operations within their borders.
- Requiring drillers in states where fracking is already happening to post sufficient financial assurance. Financial assurance rules should be designed to guarantee that the costs of any environmental or public health damage caused by fracking are borne by the drillers, not residents or the public.
- Closing loopholes that exempt fracking from key provisions of our federal environmental laws. Federal policymakers should protect America’s natural heritage by keeping fracking away from our national parks, national forests and sources of drinking water for millions of Americans.
- Collecting and releasing to the public more complete data on fracking. This would enable us to understand the full extent of the harm that fracking causes to our environment and health.