By Laura Legere
December 22, 2016
Pennsylvania environmental regulators are on the verge of approving two planned disposal wells for oil and gas waste fluids, on the condition that the operators take steps to limit the chances the wells will cause the kinds of earthquakes that have rocked other oil and gas producing regions.
Department of Environmental Protection officials said they will soon issue long-delayed permits to Pennsylvania General Energy Co. and Seneca Resources Corp. for disposal wells in Grant Township, Indiana County, and Highland Township, Elk County.
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“The answer is going to be yes. It is just a question of what the conditions finally look like,” Scott Perry, DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, said at an advisory board meeting late last month. He said the agency expects to act on the applications “in the extremely near future.”
A DEP spokesman could not say, specifically, when the permits will be issued.
The applications for the wastewater wells have inspired an extraordinary degree of local opposition, especially for regions of the state that have a history of oil and gas development.
Voters in Highland Township, population 492, adopted a new form of local government in November with a home rule charter that makes it illegal to deposit oil and gas waste in the township.
Grant Township voters took the same step a year earlier.
Both tiny communities (Grant’s population is about 740) decided to pursue the new charters despite having settled or lost earlier rounds of legal challenges brought by the oil and gas companies, which are suing the townships over their attempts to ban the wells.
The permits — and all other injection well applications that DEP reviews in the near term — will carry three common conditions, as well as individualized requirements, DEP officials said.
They will require the operators to perform seismic monitoring around the wells and to make the data picked up by the sensors publicly available — ideally in real time as an extension of the state’s established monitoring network.
They will also force the operators to shut down wells that cause earthquakes of magnitude 2.0 or greater. Magnitude 2.0 and smaller seismic events are considered microearthquakes and are generally too subtle for humans to feel.
DEP officials are still debating whether operators should be allowed to reopen a well after an earthquake-triggered shutdown or what conditions operators would have to meet in that case.
Mr. Perry said the department’s goal is to allow disposal of oil and gas wastes deep underground without repeating the failures plaguing newly earthquake-prone Oklahoma, where oil and gas disposal wells “have fundamentally changed the tectonic regime for the state.”
Deep disposal wells are designed to channel fluids into porous rock, but under certain conditions the injections have caused nearby faults to slip, inducing quakes in Ohio, Oklahoma, Colorado, Texas, Arkansas and other states in recent years.
“I think there is a legitimate reason to be concerned, but there is also a great opportunity to demonstrate that the risk can absolutely be managed,” Mr. Perry said.
“We believe that these disposal wells should not cause any seismic activity at all. Not just little earthquakes, but none whatsoever,” he added.
“We think that the proper operation of these wells is going to yield exactly that, as do the operators of these wells.”
Both companies plan to convert depleted oil and gas wells into injection wells that take wastewater that comes to the surface after fracking or over the life of producing wells. Both have permits from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has primary regulatory oversight of the wells.
But permitting of the wells was delayed when Pennsylvania DEP officials recognized that they are required under a little-known regulation to evaluate whether applications for waste disposal into underground horizons are unlikely to be against the public interest.
Pennsylvania has about 15 operating or federally permitted disposal wells — a tiny number compared to more than 200 in Ohio and about 4,000 in Oklahoma.
Oil and gas companies are looking for more options to dispose of their liquid waste in Pennsylvania when recycling or reuse is impractical.
DEP officials said that now that they have developed a process for evaluating injection well applications, future permit reviews will be more efficient.
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