Arkansas Drilling Brings Rewards, Environmental Risk

As drilling companies continue to sink natural gas wells in White County, Ark., and elsewhere in the Fayetteville Shale play, business leaders are lobbying for improved roads and environmental groups are concerned not enough attention is being paid to potential long-term effects.

Jim Cottom, district manager for Weatherford Technologies, a company that fractures shale so that gas can be pumped, said at a Searcy forum last that the two biggest problems faced by the industry are the lack of a Searcy bypass and too many roads in the area that weren’t built for heavy truck traffic.

Glen Hooks, associate regional representative of the Sierra Club, said the state needs more inspectors to keep tabs on what’s happening at the well sites. He said the Sierra Club backed a proposal during the legislative session to do just that. The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission reported that it had only eight inspectors to regulate all the wells in the state, Hooks said.

But the measure didn’t pass.

“It’s like a train moving at high speed and we hope we have enough track ahead of us to address these issues,” said Kate Altoff, chairwoman of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club.

Getting the gas out of the shale requires a tremendous amount of effort, equipment and resources. Texas Gas Transmissions is currently planning 167-mile pipeline to move the gas.

Freshwater is needed to fracture the shale, and reservoirs are planned for rain collection to help supply the water. Chesapeake Energy is constructing a 40-acre surface lake by taking excess water from the Little Red River, said Danny Games, Chesapeake director of corporate development.

A 48-inch pipeline will be built in order to transport the water at a low pressure. The pipeline would pose no threat to boating or to the habitat, Games said, who noted that the plan has received regulatory approval.

Each well needs about 60,000 to 70,000 gallons of water pumped through with sand at high pressure to break through the shale.

“This year the ponds are full and the streams are full, but in the future it will definitely become an issue,” Cottom said.

Drillers need disposal wells to pump hazardous fracwater into the ground so that it does not become a danger to wildlife. There is currently one disposal pump in the state near Clarksville, and there are permits to create several more in the Fayetteville Shale area itself, said Micheal Ratchford, senior geologist at the Arkansas Geological Survey.

Altoff said state regulators have not been able to keep pace.

“The state agencies don’t have the boots on the ground and there’s a lot of self-regulation going on,” she said. Hooks suggested the state use emergency funds to hire more inspectors or devote money from the increase in the severance tax.

Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission director Lawrence Bengal has asked for more inspectors, but said his agency can regulate the industry. He noted that while many more natural gas rigs are operating, only about 35 rigs are being drilled at a given time, and that is when the environmental impact occurs. Self-regulation in the industry is not a danger, he said.

“It isn’t one now and it certainly won’t be one in the future,” Bengal said.

The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality has five inspectors who investigate complaints within the Fayetteville Shale play, but those inspectors are general water quality inspectors who have responsibilities outside of the Fayetteville Shale play, said Teresa Marks, director of ADEQ. Marks said the agency gets two or three complaints a week regarding drilling.

“Currently we investigate any complaint we receive,” she said. “If we had more inspectors, we could do random inspections.”

Mark Raines, a Chesapeake Energy spokesman, said there are 10 different state and federal agencies that oversee the industry.

John Thaeler, vice-president of SEECO, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Southwestern Energy, said the company has ponds on private property to collect rainwater. Southwestern will then buy the water from the landowners.

“The state has been very adamant that Arkansas’s clear water remain clear,” he said.

Altoff said the state should also slow the rate at which drilling permits are issued to ensure each step of the process is fully monitored.

Information from: The Daily Citizen,