Pennsylvania lifts gas production ban in polluted village

Under a deal with state regulators, one of Pennsylvania’s biggest drillers will be allowed to extract natural gas from under the rural Pennsylvania community, where it has been banned for a dozen years on charges of polluting its water supplies.

The Department of Environmental Protection has quietly lifted its long-term moratorium on gas production in Dimock, a small northeastern Pennsylvania village that became nationally famous when residents were seen setting tap water on fire.

The agency’s Houston-based Coterra Energy Inc. Its settlement with the company is dated November 29 – the same day Coterra filed no objections in a high-profile criminal case accusing the company of allowing methane to leak unchecked into Dimock’s aquifer. State officials denied permission to file misdemeanor charges in exchange for Coterra being allowed to drill potentially hundreds of millions of dollars worth of gas.

The publicly available deal was received by the Associated Press.

Some residents, who have long accused the government agency of negligence in handling water pollution in Dimock, said they felt betrayed.

“We played games,” said Ray Kemble, who is the most outspoken of a small group of Dimock residents who are struggling alike with the drilling company and state regulators.

Coterra will be allowed to drill horizontally below a 9-square-mile (23-square-kilometer) area of ​​Dimock and break through the gas-containing shale lying thousands of feet below; this is something that has been banned since 2010 when environmental regulators blamed Coterra. Corporate premise that doesn’t live up to Dimock’s promise to restore or replace water.

DEP has entered negotiations with Coterra in early 2022, with Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. He said it started shortly after the merger of Cimarex Energy Co.

“When Coterra took over responsibility for the wells after the Cabot merger, they actively worked with the DEP to resolve remaining issues in the area,” said agency spokesman Jamar Thrasher. “Coterra has committed to stringent controls, monitoring and evaluation, resulting in some of the most restrictive conditions for any drilling in the state.”

Cabot, Coterra’s predecessor, was charged with 15 counts in June 2020 for allegedly drilling faulty gas wells that leaked flammable methane into residential water supplies in Dimock and surrounding communities.

Coterra claimed that the state did not contest misdemeanor violations of the Clean Stream Act. His plea deal with the state’s attorney general requires Coterra to pay more than $16 million to fund construction of a new public water system for Dimock and pay off 75-year water bills for affected residents.

Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who will take office as governor next month, held a celebratory press conference with Kemble and two other Dimock residents on the day Coterra made his defense. At the press conference, Shapiro answered a reporter’s question whether Coterra would be allowed to continue drilling in the moratorium area, pointing out that the administration of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf is still in office.

“This is clearly a question for regulators, not for the attorney general’s office,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro’s spokesman said the plea deal was not dependent on the DEP lifting the moratorium.

“Our office plays no role in DEP’s regulatory decisions and we do not share confidential information regarding criminal investigations,” spokesman Jacklin Rhoads said.

In an interview Friday, Wolf said his administration was happy with the decision to allow Coterra to return to Dimock. He said the company had to follow “some pretty strict rules”.

Coterra will continue to be prohibited from drilling new gas wells within the moratorium area. But shale drills like Coterra can drill horizontally for miles until they reach their target; this means the company can easily access gas even if it has to start new wells outside of the restricted zone.

Zacariah Hildenbrand, a Dallas-based biochemist who conducted tests at Dimock, said technically, the horizontal portion of a gas well is “much safer” than the vertical portion, where most drilling-related water pollution cases originate. .

But he didn’t believe Coterra would want to risk it – and regulators would allow it – at Dimock because it was at the center of one of the most high-profile cases of pollution from the drilling and fracking boom in the US.

“Why would we roll the dice for this to happen again? You’ve already created a huge mess in this area. There has already been a black eye on the industry,” said Hildenbrand. “Why don’t you get your tools and go somewhere else?”

The driller has long claimed that the gas in Dimock’s water wells occurs naturally, and over the years, he periodically seeks government permission to continue drilling in the community.

Coterra spokesman George Stark said in a statement that the agreement with the DEP “solves longstanding problems and enables the responsible and safe development of the natural resources found within the nine square mile area. It is also the case with many landowners who have expressed their support for such development over the years.” meets their demands.”

Pennsylvania is the country’s number 2 gas producing state after Texas, and Susquehanna County, where Dimock is located, produces more natural gas than any other county in the state.

Alan Hall, vice chairman of the Susquehanna County Board of Commissioners, said many of his voters in Dimock were clamoring for the resumption of gas production, having leased their land to the gas company long ago.

“They know the gas in that area is very efficient and there’s a lot of it out there. And they were hoping that a solution would be reached, the leases would be reactivated and they would start charging royalties from the process,” he said.

Anthony Ingraffea, an emeritus engineering professor at Cornell University who has extensively studied gas well failures in Pennsylvania, estimates that Coterra could drill as many as 50 wells within the moratorium area and produce $500 million worth of gas. Energy companies use hydraulic fracturing or fracturing to capture natural gas trapped in shale rock.

Testing on behalf of the residents of Dimock, who once sued Cabot in federal court, drilling industry critic Ingraffea said more methane spills and more problems were inevitable.

“Today is mole day,” he said. “These poor families, the families that remain, and the families that will be affected have returned to their 2008 location. The state of Pennsylvania, the governor’s office, and the PA DEP are washing their hands.”

Dimock resident Erik Roos, who spent years getting drinking water from an artesian well miles from his home, whose well was contaminated with methane gas, said he was pleased to finally be connected to a public water supply. But he was surprised when a reporter told him that drilling was scheduled to resume.

“It bothers me that they reward them so quickly,” he said. “It seems to me that they should wait at least a year.” He said the regulators should tell Coterra, “If you show that you’re complying with this agreement, maybe we’ll let you do it.”


Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press columnist reporter Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania contributed to this report.

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