Source: The Charleston Gazette (WV), October 26, 2014
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com
One of the nation’s best-known experts on the Marcellus Shale concluded that more investigation is needed before a Houston firm is allowed to move forward with natural gas wells near the site of a “near-catastrophic” fracking incident at a Marshall County chemical plant.
Penn State geologist Terry Engelder, who did groundbreaking work about the gas reserves available in the Marcellus formation, testified in a Pennsylvania case in which Axiall Corp. was trying to delay and force a more detailed review of its plans for hydraulic fracturing wells at Axiall’s manufacturing plant in Natrium.
“There are certainly things that can be done to gather more information that would help in understanding,” Engelder testified during a June hearing in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. “One would hope that information would be gathered.”
Engelder and another Axiall expert, petroleum engineer Brun Hilbert, testified concerns that Gastar’s wells could lead to a repeat of an incident last year that Axiall blames on high-pressure fracking fluids being used by another company, Triad Hunter, to release natural gas from the Marcellus Shale at a well site across the Ohio River.
In court documents, Axiall says that increased underground pressure from the fracking at Triad Hunter traveled under the river and somehow made contact with brine wells Axiall uses to obtain saltwater, one of the key materials used in its manufacturing process. Axiall says those pressures led to a blowout in which one of its brine wells at its plant “began spewing flammable natural gas.”
No injuries were reported, but parts of Axiall’s brine production were closed for more than six months for repairs and the company had to set up several large flares to burn off excess natural gas. Axiall was “fortunate to have been able to limit the environmental impact of the Triad Hunter incident and avoid bodily injury or loss of life due to a natural gas explosion or other disaster,” the company says in court records.
Last week, Allegheny County Judge Christine Ward refused Axiall’s request for a preliminary injunction against Gastar.
Gastar said it was pleased with the ruling, believes Axiall’s allegations in the case were without merit, and planned to move forward with its fracking “in the near future.” In a recent filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Gastar said that leases adjacent to the Natrium plant account for nearly one-fifth of its total gas reserves.
The judge’s decision dropped the issue squarely in the lap of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, which had already issued several permits for Gastar’s operations in the area and has several other permits pending. DEP met with Axiall and was considering options for adding some conditions to Gastar’s permits to try to prevent any problems.
Public disclosure of the situation and contact from Axiall on the issue prompted Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to schedule a meeting Oct. 23 with DEP Secretary Randy Huffman to find out more. Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s communications director, declined to say if the governor shares Axiall’s concerns about Gastar’s planned operations, but said Tomblin “decided it was important enough to be briefed about.”
“The DEP is responsible for permitting issues and will continue to monitor activity related to that site,” Stadelman said Friday.
Details of the controversy emerged last week as Tomblin and the Commerce Department continue to review bids on the governor’s proposal to lease rights for private companies to drill and produce natural gas from state-owned reserves under portions of the Ohio River, including at two sites near the Natrium plant.
Environmental groups oppose the idea, and have urged the governor to drop his proposals. Stadelman did not indicate that the Axiall situation had given the governor any second thoughts about the Ohio River leasing proposals,
The Natrium plant leases with Gastar were agreed to by PPG Industries two years before PPG sold the facility to Axiall in January 2013. The plant’s operations date back to the 1940s, when the facility was opened to tap into a huge salt deposit located far beneath the surface. The plant uses salt mined from these subsurface deposits to produce chlorine, caustic soda and hydrogen, as well as hydrochloric acid and calcium hyperchloride.
Hilbert, Axiall’s engineer, testified that the Hunter Triad incident “demonstrates the presence of a highly conductive zone in the Marcellus Shale that allowed frack fluid under very high pressure to travel through the Marcellus Shale from Triad Hunter’s wells, under the Ohio River” to the Natrium plant. This, Hilbert said, provided evidence of “a preexisting natural high conductivity path” that allowed for “communication between Triad Hunter’s natural gas wells and” the Natrium plant’s brine wells.
Engelder testified that Gastar’s wells could pose a similar “risk” to the Natrium facility, and recommended a “first-class” three-dimensional seismic study be conducted to examine that possibility. Axiall wanted the judge to order such a study, but Gastar argued that “potential” or “possible” risks were not enough to warrant a “sweeping, mandatory injunction.”