Friday, November 22, 2013

Cabot buys second polluted residential property in Dimock 12-acre parcel on Carter Road flanked by faulty gas wells

The former Mike Ely propety, now owned by Cabot
Cabot Oil & Gas has closed a deal for a second residential property affected by chronic methane pollution in the heart of its prolific gas operations in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

The Texas-based company paid Michael Ely $140,000 for the 12-acre property that includes a doublewide modular home, according to records filed in Susquehanna County Courthouse Wednesday.  The property – now vacant -- borders the intersection of the south end of Carter Road with State Route 3023 in Dimock Township.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has identified at least two malfunctioning gas wells operated by Cabot bordering the property, including the Gesford 3 well, several hundred yards to the north off Carter Road, and the Costello 1 well, just to the south off Route 3023.

Cabot demolished the former Sautner in September 
The agency has forbidden Cabot to drill more wells in a nine-square mile area around the intersection until the company resolves problems with these and other shale gas wells that – according to the DEP inspectors – are causing methane pollution.

The former Ely property sits less than a mile south from another polluted residential property on Carter Road that Cabot bought for $140,000 from Craig and Julie Sautner last year. Cabot demolished the three-bedroom ranch in September and sold the empty lot to a neighbor for $4,000. The new deed includes a clause – called a land covenant -- that forbids residential dwellings on the property.

Cabot bought both the Sautner and Ely properties through a subsidiary called Susquehanna Real Estate 1 Corp.

Ely ancestral home across from Cabot's newly acquired lot
The former property of Mike Ely is part of a larger swath owned by generations of the Ely family since 1858. Bill Ely, Mike’s father, lives in the family’s large ancestral colonial home near the banks of Burdick Creek, which runs under a bridge connecting Carter Road with Route 3023. Bill Ely and his wife, Sheila, are among families in the area that depend on bottled water. Bill told me he has no intention of selling his 19th century house to the company, even though his water is not drinkable.

“I’m not leaving” Ely said Thursday. “My family’s been in this home for generations.”

Susquehanna County and operations centered in Dimock have been the source of both boon and bane for Cabot, which in 2013 was the second largest natural gas producer in Pennsylvania behind Chesapeake Energy. In the first half of the year, Cabot had 15 of the top producing wells in the state concentrated in its leasehold in Susquehanna County – an area experts call a “sweet spot” for Marcellus Shale production. But production has been beset by problems. Both Mike and Bill Ely were among more than 30 families in the area that settled a law suit with Cabot for damages related to water pollution for an undisclosed amount in 2012. The controversy continues, as Cabot, under the watch of the DEP, attempts to fix problems that have prevented it from drilling any new wells in a 9-square-mile region around the Carter Road area. Some of the gas wells have been plugged or shut down, so residents living over them have seen royalty payments dwindle.

Hazards found in some residential water wells include methane, arsenic, bacteria, and various heavy metals that occur naturally. Methane can make water flammable and pose risks of explosion in wellheads and enclosed spaces. Arsenic, heavy metals, and bacteria can cause illness. Drilling can open pathways that allow contaminants to move through the ground, but the extent to which this happens is open to scientific and legal interpretation. Cabot continues to challenge the DEP findings publically with claims the contaminates are a result of naturally-occurring phenomenon.

The DEP began investigating problems in the region after a residential water well on the north end of Carter Road exploded at the home of Norma Fiorentino on January 1, 2009, shortly after Cabot began ramping up operations to produce gas from the Marcellus Shale with the controversial practice of horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing. Since then, the area has been the focus of a national controversy over the impacts of shale gas development on residential communities.

During my visit to the area this week, I noticed that a service rig at the Costello gas well had been removed. George Stark, a spokesman for Cabot, was not immediately available for comment about recent developments. Stark told me in September that the rig, which has been at the site for months, allowed crews to “monitor” the casing of the gas well, which appeared sound.

DEP officials explained it differently. They had not pinpointed a source for the problems affecting three homes near the well, including the Ely properties. But they had determined that the suspect Costello gas well was "unviable" and would have to be plugged. In an email response to my query earlier this fall, DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly reported that Cabot was ”continuing remedial efforts” at the Costello gas well and “evaluating the effectiveness” of the work.  Methane levels were fluctuating, she said. Additionally, tests had shown levels of iron and manganese that were elevated but within standards in some water samples. Elevated levels of these elements are “not uncommon during gas migration,” she reported.

Update 5:25 p.m. EST. In response to my request for an update this week, Connolly said in an email this afternoon that “remediation work” is continuing on the Costello 1 well.  But the department’s characterization of the status of the well remains vague. In Connolly’s words, the well is "essentially unviable," but DEP officials are "not aware of the gas well having been officially plugged.”

Friday, November 15, 2013

Fracking critics gain leverage with social media mastery Why PR matters in the war over shale gas

Richard Levick, an influential public relations advisor, wrote a piece for Forbes last week about how the Oil and Gas industry’s PR machine is losing the battle for hearts and minds of mainstream America “despite industry advertising budgets that dwarf the activist war chest.” Why? In Levick’s view, it’s all about anti-fracking activists’ mastery of social media to galvanize and amplify grass roots movements. Or in his words:

Social media outreach, online content development, and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Marketing (SEM) are all dominated by activist voices. As a result, they are not only rallying significant grassroots opposition; they are doing it in ways that neutralize any advantage that industry money once provided.

Anti-fracking campaigns, both at institutional levels and from the ground up, were quick to catch the crest of the social media wave that has largely displaced community newspapers and town halls as popular incubators and catalysts for free speech, political action, and self-governance. Levick uses an empirical analysis, including a count of tweets about fracking over a given period, to illustrate how “the most influential conversation around this topic is highly negative.” He laments that the industry supporters do little or nothing to engage this on-line discussion, and urges them to get in the program.

Activists understand that the marketplace of ideas has evolved – and they are evolving – and leading — right along with it. If fracking is to become an accepted practice in the U.S., the energy industry must do so as well.

I found Levick’s points relevant enough to merit posting on my own Facebook Page, with this comment: “PR & the fracking war. Big Oil & Gas $ versus anti-fracking organization. Media expert Richard Levick explains natgas industry’s failure in Forbes.”

A reader, perhaps interpreting my post as an endorsement of Levick’s industry coaching, responded that the article was misguided, as the anti-fracking battle transcends a PR contest. She left this query. “He thinks it just comes down to a pr battle. What do you think?” Fair question, and one that – given it was posted on facebook and I am now responding on Blogger -- illustrates the influence of the new media that Levick writes about.

So here’s my answer: As a journalist, I’m always interested in how a message is conveyed, the degree to which it piques public interest, people’s perceptions, and what influences them. I welcome analysis from informed observers, and in this regard I think Levick’s piece rings true… mostly. The industry has done a lousy job from the start explaining itself with a patronizing “Trust-Us-It’s-Safe” message. This assessment is not just from Levkick, but is shared by notable industry supporters as well as skeptics, and it applies to both the industry’s traditional advertising campaigns in print and broadcast, as well as its social media efforts. Tom Ridge, former Pennsylvania-governor-turned-public-relations-figurehead for the industry, told an Associated Press reporter that the industry had to do a better job conveying a positive public image and “they know they have some work to do.” That was in 2010.

Last week, Sarah Murphy wrote an article for Motley Fool, the popular investor guide, titled “Fracking is Losing the PR battle.” She cited a recent report called Disclosing the Facts: Transparency and Risk in Hydraulic Fracturing Operations,  released last week. The report assesses investors’ needs for risk disclosure and mitigation against company practices and found “a systematic, industry-wide failure to adequately disclose fracking-related information that is material to investors.” Murphy explains what this means in her view:

The thing is, fracking may really not be as awful as the campaigns make it appear, but the industry is going to have to rethink its strategy or risk condemnation in the court of public opinion… 
Seriously, these guys have got to step up their game if they want to survive. At last week's SRI Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing, I talked with countless fund managers, investors, financial advisors, and academics, all of whom agreed that while fracking is controversial from a sustainability perspective, the industry's ham-fisted approach to public engagement has been so feeble as to be pathetic.

In this day and age, much of that engagement is on line. And, as Levick points out, it’s a place where the industry is out of its element of old-fashioned Madison Avenue advertising strategies aimed at conventional media.

While industry money went into advertising and traditional “outreach” campaigns that net diminishing returns in the digital age of public affairs…  activists stretched every dollar with online efforts that prove far more effective.

The trend is also important in politics. Levick links to another assessment that recaps the advantage Obama had over Romney by understanding and applying the power of Social Media in an “era where familiarity, credibility, and the ability to forge personal connections trump traditional advertising at every turn.”

The accounts of Levick, Murphy, and Ridge are but a few assessments of how the industry has failed with the traditional media with patronizing and heavy handed messaging, and failed with the new media with its inability to engage savvy and influential audiences on line. But there is a critical third frontier that they don’t address: Big-money politics.

Popular opinion is only one gauge of a campaign’s success. The other is special interest – the megaphone through which public opinion is conveyed to Washington. The size of the megaphone is related to lobbying wherewithal of a given interest, and the lobbying wherewithal is largely a function of the money behind it. Here the industry is winning, at least in Washington. The Obama administration has identified shale gas development as a “priority” in meeting the nation’s future energy needs. That may be related to lobbying, or not. But certainly lobbying has everything to do with the policy framework that heavily favors the industry over others.  Specifically, Obama’s administration and Congress have preserved drilling and fracking industry exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste disposal laws – passes that allow industry to operate with one foot in the pre-regulatory era. Without these exemptions, the industry would have to reveal what hazardous substances that it puts into the ground, and characterize the waste that comes out – revelations that would open the door to a host of other laws, and cast fracking in an altogether different public light.

The lobbying battle at regional and local levels is not going as well for the industry, or conversely, is going much better for the activists. New York state remains off limits to the industry pending a moratorium now in its sixth year. And this month local municipalities in California and Colorado have advanced the Home Rule movement -- which settles drilling issues with local town boards and referendums -- that is gaining traction in New York and Pennsylvania. As Levick notes about the recent vote in Colorado: Boulder, Fort Collins and Lafayette overwhelmingly voted for drilling bans. The industry had only one victory in Broomfield, an area that traditionally trends Republican, where voters rejected the environmentalist agenda by the slimmest of margins.

In the long run, operators and investors continue to push forward with shale gas development that has flooded the market with cheap natural gas. The industry’s success or failure over the longer term hinges on its ability to address issues of sustainability -- not just ecologically, but economically and politically -- in the Market Place of Ideas, where voters and investors judge the good from the bad.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What are the prospects for New York’s shale reserves? Sociology, ideology weigh heavy in debate over geology

The value of a given shale gas reserve depends on the physical characteristics of the rock. How deep? How thick? How much wet gas? How much dry gas? But as with many aspects of the shale gas debate, there’s more to it. Community attitudes, politics, special interests, markets, and ideological conviction all influence the social and monetary push to get things moving.

Things are not moving in New York, where for years shale gas has been pitched as an economic gift – a windfall for the taking -- by industry public relations campaigns, lobbiest, and landowners seeking lucrative contracts with drillers. Now, fracking critics are drawing on industry’s own data to build a case that the New York’s shale prospects amount to a stillborn promise.

Chip Northrup, a former oil and gas investor from Texas, led a team of professionals who made this case Wednesday night at Cornell University. Presenters also included Lou Allstadt, a retired Mobil vice president, Brian Brock, a geologist, and Jerry Acton, a retired systems engineer for Lockheed Martin. The team, moderated by Cornell engineering professor Tony Ingraffea, spoke at a 200-seat lecture hall brimming   with a supportive anti-fracking crowd that laughed and applauded in response to occasional quips and deadpans by Northrup. (Example: “In Texas, they know better than to spread radio-active flowback on roads…. They use it to induce earthquakes by injecting underground.”)

In a presentation that lasted close to two and a half hours, Northrup and his colleagues drew on data from a handful of exploratory wells in New York and extrapolations from thousands of production wells in Pennsylvania, along with prevailing social factors. Their conclusion: Viable shale reserves in New York are too limited and social resistance too great to produce major development at current prices. Rather than blossoming into the mega-billion dollar industry, as promised, the play is more likely to attract highly speculative exploration around the fringes by wildcatters, storage facilities and pipelines to get Pennsylvania gas to market, and geology that is uniquely suited for the injection of fracking waste from out-of-state operations – factors that Northup likens to “a hangover without the benefit of the night on the town.”

For years, the anti-frackers have waged their war against shale gas development predominantly on environmental grounds with arguments that it’s unsustainable and acutely and chronically damaging to the ecosystem. Wednesday’s presentation shifted the fight to economic grounds, at a time when the industry is sensitive to talk that can discourage investors. Natural gas prices are expected to remain at historic lows for the foreseeable future, cooling enthusiasm to sink capital into exploration and production efforts in new and unproven areas.  (In many ways, the industry is victim to it’s own prolific success in Pennsylvania. Landowners are anticipating the market glut will soon exceed storage capacity, portending even further suppression of prices or a scale back in production. For a recent assessment of the market glut from the view of landowner's forum, click here.)

Economic prospects in New York, meanwhile, are further weakened by regulatory uncertainty. After more than five years of an environmental review, state officials are yet to finalize permitting policy pending questions about public health, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s lack of commitment is grounded in coordinated opposition from both grass roots and institutional campaigns that represent a significant part of his political base.  (Significantly, Northup and Allstadt are among leaders of their own political action campaign to ban fracking near their homes in Cooperstown. Their fight to put shale gas development in the hands of local town leaders rather than state officials boils down to the outcome of a landmark case now before the Court of Appeals.)

Just as gas proponents were using the promise of wealth to urge state government to begin permitting gas wells when prices were high and interest was booming, critics are now presenting evidence of a flat-out bust as all the more reason to hold back.
Acton's analysis shows colored dots representing viable shale zones 

At Wednesday’s presentation, Brock provided a geological assessment that explained what is widely known about the Marcellus: Production is most viable in the thickest, richest sections at a certain depth, which tapper exponentially from an area just south of New York’s border with Pennsylvania. Acton supported Brock’s characterization with a separate analysis, now circulating on the Internet. Acton used production figures from Pennsylvania wells to assess yields corresponding with certain physical parameters of Marcellus geology, including depth, thickness, and thermal maturity, and then extrapolated the Pennsylvania data to model New York’s production. His conclusion: Reserves under the Empire State remain mostly unviable, with the exception of an area extending slightly into the Southern Tier, just north of the most lucrative part of the reserve in Susquehanna County Pennsylvania.

As with many arguments over shale gas, this one is not so much about the data, but how the data is framed in a broader campaign for or against development. Much of Thursday’s presentation amounted to casting old information in the context of current market conditions. Acton’s map, in fact, was similar to a map created by Terry Engelder, a Penn State geologist and shale authority who has prominently argued in favor of the economic benefits of drilling. Allstadt later used Engelder’s map to support the theme of the Cornell presentation: The New York shale gas cup is far more empty than full.

A map by Engelder used by Allstadt shows conflicting interpretations
Northrup pointed out that while the shale gas footprint in New York is vast, it’s functionally limited by geology, market restrictions, myriad moving parts of corporate portfolios and lease holds, complications and uncertainties posed by unresolved state policy, no drill zones proposed by the state, and bans by municipalities. I’ve heard both shale gas critics and proponents refer to this set of factors as strangulation by regulation. It’s a point that industry lawyer and lobbiest Tom West frequently makes at public talks: given the social resistance it faces in New York, the shale gas industry will simply move on to less restrictive and more productive territory.

Allstadt presented evidence that major companies have tested both the Utica and Marcellus shales in New York and found them unworthy. He cited a handful of test wells with underwhelming results drilled by companies such as Chevron, Gulf, Anschutz, Chesapeake and others prior to the shale gas boom. His point is worth noting, but also in need of context. These test wells were small in number and scattered over a large area. They were vertical wells that used low volumes of fracking solutions, prior to refinements and breakthroughs to adapt the process to Devonian shale. And they don’t correspond with leasing trends that took shape with a better geological understanding of the play that came after 2008. (XTO Energy, later bought by Exxon Mobil, paid $110 million dollars for leases on 50,000 acres spanning parts of Broome and Delaware County in the spring of 2008 after wells were proven in northeastern Pennsylvania.)

By the account presented by Northrup and his group, New York is missing or has already missed the shale gas party. As for what Northrup characterizes as the hangover: New York remains an attractive disposal option for Pennsylvania producers because New York regulations, which haven’t been updated since the late 20th century, allow flow-back to be spread on roads and drill cuttings to be disposed of as conventional waste. Additionally, conventional wells in New York that were drilled and depleted decades ago make, by industry standards, suitable repositories for shale gas waste. From a geographical standpoint, New York is a strategic spot for infrastructure projects to store and transport gas to major northeast markets, and some of these projects are already well underway, including various pipelines and a controversial project to convert old salt mines on the shores of Seneca Lake to natural gas and propane vaults.

Given all these factors, what does New York’s future look like? Allstadt, who has both ample industry experience and a stake in development as an Upsate resident, said a drilling boom is unlikely, but expect some intensive drilling by maverick   companies in communities bordering Pennsylvania.  “There’s always somebody who has to take a shot somewhere, and instead of going to a casino they will drill,” he said. “These are the least reliable outfits. They will drill the wells as cheaply as possible.”

Predictably, the presentation drew admiration from anti-fracking activists and criticism from industry supporters. And while it was an academic exercise that will not alter the geology and arguably has little baring on markets or regulations, it represents a piece to a much larger rhetorical tug-of-war for the hearts and minds of policy makers and politicians. Science can be found on both ends of the rope. Bruce Selleck is a geologist at Colgate University who has identified the prospective area for shale gas development – or “fairway” -- in New York to extend well into upstate New York, west to Chemung County, east to Sullivan County and north to Oneida County. The Marcellus shale alone is capable of producing 5 trillion to 10 trillion cubic feet of gas in New York, by Selleck’s estimate. His take on the presentation at Cornell? “All the blah-blah-blah rhetoric in this 'finding' makes it clear that the folks involved don't want to see gas development in New York - not surprising given the 'experts' involved.” He offered his assessment in a recent email, along with this elaboration:

That companies are dropping leases simply means they are not planning to drill the properties anytime soon, indicating their estimation of the value of the recoverable gas at current prices makes development in these frontier areas non-economic, in the near term.  The dry gas market is flush right now, and will likely remain that way for 3-5 years. The lack of permitting of HVHF in NY is of course an additional factor.

Even if the Marcellus reserve is in the 5 TCF range in NY, development could prove attractively economic down the road when gas prices are higher.  Five TCF of gas would require 2500-4000 wells to ultimately recover that resource. That scale of development would still bring significant royalties to landowners, along with other economic benefits, and all the negative impacts, as well. 
The Utica is even more of an unknown in NY, so any statements made about its potential are based on very little data.  I expect a few of the companies in NE PA will try the Utica at some point soon. 

Policy is made at the crossroads of science and politics. The argument that Upstate New York’s celebrated shale reserves have already been passed over by major players challenges proponents painting the industry as economic salvation for upstate New York, and their corresponding push for legislators and the governor to create a policy infrastructure that enables it. But it’s hard to know exactly where it will lead. The assessment by critics that reserves are economically viable only in a small part of the Southern Tier may give Cuomo political cover to proceed with a plan he has already proposed: Begin issuing permits for wells in areas along the Southern Tier where local officials feel their communities stand to benefit, and see what happens.