Nick Wass, File, Associated Press
PITTSBURGH — The boom in oil and gas fracking has led to jobs, billions in royalties and profits, and even some environmental gains.
But some experts say arrogance, a lack of transparency and poor communication on the part of the drilling industry have helped fuel public anger over the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
"It's a big issue for the industry. I have called for greater transparency. That is the only way to have an honest conversation with the public," said John Hofmeister, a former Shell Oil Co. president and author of "Why We Hate Oil Companies."
As an example, Hofmeister said, some industry leaders have suggested that the fracking boom has never caused water pollution. But while the vast majority of wells don't cause problems, "everybody knows that some wells go bad," Hofmeister said.
Over the last five years, advances in technology have led to a surge of drilling in states such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, Arkansas and North Dakota. Previously inaccessible deposits of shale oil and gas have been unlocked by fracking, a process in which large amounts of water and sand along with chemicals are injected deep underground to break apart the rock.
One of the biggest promoters of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom in Pennsylvania says that while fracking opponents have exaggerated some risks, the industry hasn't always handled key issues well, either.
Terry Engelder, a Penn State geologist, cited the highly publicized case in Dimock, Pa., where 18 families began complaining in 2009 that nearby drilling had polluted their water supply with methane gas and toxic chemicals.
State environmental regulators ultimately agreed, imposing large fines on Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Co, and temporarily banning the company from drilling in a 9-square-mile area around the town. Cabot paid the fines but denied responsibility for the contamination.
Engelder said at least some of the industry's missteps have been unintentional and come from inexperience.
In Dimock, the land had so many layers of rock and the drilling boom was so new that both the industry and regulators struggled to understand and explain the problems with the water wells, Engelder said.
Cabot spokesman George Stark said that in retrospect, the company realized that the geology around Dimock was "highly unusual" and that pre-drilling tests for methane would have helped determine which wells had natural contamination of methane.
In 2010, Cabot began holding summer picnics in the Dimock area to answer questions about the industry, drilling and local geology, Stark said. More than 8,000 people attended last week's event, up from about 2,000 the first year, he said.
While many issues were at play, Engelder said, experts came to believe that the well construction techniques used in the early years of Pennsylvania's drilling boom "were just inadequate to the task" of protecting groundwater in that area. Regulations for well cement jobs were later strengthened considerably, but by that time, anger and negative publicity had started building, and the damage was done.
Engelder and Hofmeister say that to the industry's credit, the drilling boom has brought many benefits. Many communities haven't had major problems and welcome the jobs and the royalty payments that can reach hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for a single landowner.
But Engelder said the industry can't just focus on positives.
"There never will be a risk-free gas industry in Pennsylvania, just like there never will be risk-free driving a car," he said.
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