Well Permit Workload Reports

I am often asked how many Marcellus Shale wells or permits there are in Pennsylvania at the moment. The answers to these queries are growing all the time, and while I try to keep these datasets current on our DataTool to allow for mapping, the quickest way to find these answers is to look on the Well Permit Workload Report at the DEP website.  The workload report is updated weekly, and has a variety of information about drilling and inspection activities over a variety of time frames.  Many of the basic figures that people want to know about the industry in Pennsylvania are readily available:

Data Available on Weekly Workload Report for week ending 6-17-2011

Marcellus Shale Permit Applications

Another feature of the workload report is that it breaks down the status of Marcellus Shale permit applications from 2005 through the present.

Status of Marcellus Shale Applications in Pennsylvania, as of June 17, 2011

How selective is the process? Of the permit applications received so far, 94 percent have been approved, and four percent are still in the process of being evaluated. Only 31 applications (0.4 percent) were actually denied.

Between the Marcellus Shale and other formations, the DEP has issued over 16 permits for new wells every calendar day so far in 2011.

Violations per Inspection

2011 year to date inspection and violation data for Pennsylvania

So far this year, non Marcellus Shale wells are slightly more likely to be issued a violation upon inspection than their Marcellus Shale counterparts. This is actually a fairly dramatic change from 2010 data, which is summarized below:

2010 inspection and violation data for Pennsylvania

Last year, there were more than twice as many violations per inspection from the Marcellus Shale than from other formations, while this year the non Marcellus wells are being flagged more often. This is both because the rate of violations per inspection for non Marcellus Shale wells has risen by 35 percent over last year’s figure, and because Marcellus Shale wells are being flagged 41 percent less often this year than last year.

How Long Between MS Permit Issuance and Drilling in PA?

2011 Marcellus Shale Permits and Drilled Wells in PA (large)
2011 Marcellus Shale drilled wells (green circles) and permits issued (red stars). For a larger, dynamic view, please click the image.
Marcellus Shale Permits and Drilled Wells (large)
All Marcellus Shale permits issued (red circles) and drilled wells (green circles). Please zoom in for a closer look in the denser portions of the map.

Sometimes it seems like the oil and gas industry is in an awfully big hurry. They are in a hurry to get the mineral leases, presumably because if they don’t, some other operator will. They are in a hurry to get their drilling permits from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)–already this year, the DEP has issued 979 permits from the Marcellus Shale formation alone. And sometimes they are in a hurry to get the drill in the ground.  Sometimes, however, they are not.

This does not mean that I think the 444 Marcellus Shale wells that have been spudded (time when the drill first hits the ground) so far this year is a small number. After all, today is just the 104th day of the year, which means that on average, almost 4.3 Marcellus Shale wells are started every single day. That’s a lot of industrial activity, and yet it reflects well under half of the 9.5 Marcellus Shale permits that DEP secretary Michael Krancer signs off on every day.

The longer term trends are similar: Of the 6,092 Marcellus Shale wells with active permits(1), 2,574 have been drilled. That represents about 42 percent, meaning that the 45 percent clip for 2011 is actually running a bit ahead of schedule. All of this brings a couple questions to mind:

  • Why does the oil and gas industry get more than twice as many permits as they are able to drill?
  • What’s the lag time for drilling once the permit is in hand?

I’m still scratching my head over the first one. I have been told that the siting and permitting processes are so involved and expensive that once the permit is in hand, the industry will drill the site, but the numbers don’t seem to reflect that as being fully true. Certainly, the 107 oil and gas drilling rigs available in Pennsylvania right now is a limiting factor in how many wells are drilled, but that doesn’t explain why the permitting process is years ahead of the drilling queue.

As for how long it takes to drill once a permit has been issued, there are means of answering that question. First, I matched the permits data to the spuds data using the wells’ unique API numbers, finding 2,804 matches for 2,574 distinct wells (2)(3). The second step was to subtract the number of days between the spud date and the permit date to determine the lag time for those permits which have been drilled, and where API numbers did match up. Let’s take a look at the results:

Number of days between permit issuance and spud (initial drilling) date.

Some of the 39 wells marked as “reworked” may not have originally been Marcellus Shale wells, so they were not included in the chart above. In addition, there were two negative values, for which it would appear that well was drilled before the permit was issued. I am assuming those are attributable to clerical error, and those wells were not included in the chart above (4).

Number of days from permit issuance to spud date for Marcellus Shale wells. Please click the “i” and then a map feature for more information. Please click the gray compass rose and double carat (^) to hide those menus.

Overall, the value ranges from -86 to 2,274 days, with an average turnaround time of just over 100 days. If we omit the outliers discussed above, the values range from 1 to 566 days, with an average of just under 99 days.

After looking at these results, I am surprised by the vast range, and beyond the number of available rigs, I can only speculate as to what factors go into determining this. It also seems remarkable that there are wells that can get the equipment in place, the site prepared, and the drill in the ground the very next day after the permit was issued. And yet, for all of that celerity, sometimes it takes well over a year to start churning dirt.

  1. This data comes from the DEP’s Operators With Active Wells Inventory section of their Reports page. What I called “active permits” are actually “active wells” according to the DEP. These include all wells for which the permit has been issued but have not yet been plugged. This would include wells that hav not been drilled, thus my distinction.
  2. Both datasets had some duplication of well numbers. All records that were exact duplicates were removed, meaning that the remainder had at least slight variances in one or more columns.
  3. I should mention that the number of matches to the permits list means that there are 93 mismatches between the two datasets. In theory, all of the drilled wells should be on the permit report, but for now, let’s take the 97% match rate and move forward.
  4. All values are included in the posted dataset, and therefore the DataTool map.

Gas Drilling Waste Pollution Permit Under Scrutiny

March 16, 2011

Gas Drilling Waste Pollution Permit Under Scrutiny
Bowing to industry pressure, state has bent the rules for wastewater treatment plant

HARRISBURG, PA – Environmental groups are challenging a new proposal to allow a gas drilling wastewater treatment plant operated by Shallenberger Construction, Inc. to dump 500,000 gallons of water polluted by toxic chemicals into the Monongahela River each day without adequate protections for drinking water.

The nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice filed comments (PDF) on behalf of Clean Water Action and 18 other organizations, disclosing that – for the second time in the short history of the treatment plant – the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) has made an exception to the rules for Shallenberger. The comments also highlight a host of other problems with the plant’s permit, which could result in the contamination of the Monongahela River, a drinking water source for 350,000 people.

Earlier this month, the New York Times published a series of investigative articles on the environmental impacts of the gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania, highlighting the lax regulations governing the gas drilling industry. Yesterday federal lawmakers, including Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), introduced legislation aimed at protecting drinking water from gas drilling pollution.

“Pennsylvania is being held up nationwide as a poster child for gas development gone wrong. And this shoddy pollution permit certainly won’t do anything to change its reputation. Even as state officials try to appear as if they are being tough on polluters, they keep bending over backwards to accommodate an industry that is clearly uninterested in anything but short-term profits,” said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg. “It’s high time that state leaders recognized that the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Mon for their drinking water clearly comes first.”

The sole purpose of the Shallenberger plant (located in Masontown, PA, in the southwestern corner of the state) is to treat polluted water from industrial gas development in the Marcellus shale, including wastewater from the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing – in which drillers blast millions of gallons of chemically-treated water into the earth to extract the gas. Clean Water Action has been in litigation (PDF) since 2009 over a prior secret agreement to allow the plant several years to discharge incompletely treated wastewater, in spite of legal requirements that new wastewater treatment plants be built with adequate controls right from the start.

“As we detail in our comments, DEP has twice told the public that Shallenberger’s permit will contain one set of limits, while the agency is planning to enforce completely different standards. DEP needs to come clean with its true intentions and protect our drinking water from dirty gas extraction wastes,” stated Myron Arnowitt, PA State Director for Clean Water Action.

DEP first issued an unlawfully lenient discharge permit to Shallenberger in September 2008. After pollution in the Monongahela River exceeded water quality standards, the State entered into negotiations with Shallenberger to amend the permit. DEP gave the company more than three years from the end of August 2009 to meet new limits, however, and even those were inadequate. The negotiations were conducted behind closed doors, and the deal was never subject to public notice or review. The new draft permit also is subject to toothless deadlines and other deficiencies.

Heather Panek, a Clean Water Action member living in nearby Monongahela, PA, stated, “As a life long resident of the Mon Valley, I can’t understand why the state would allow Shallenberger to start polluting our drinking water. This plant has been operating successfully for a about a year without discharging a drop. Not only could there be health problems, if DEP allows untreated pollution into the river, but our businesses could be hurt as well. What person or business is going to want to move into a community without access to clean water?”

For a copy of the comments filed, click here (PDF).

Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice, (212) 791-1881, ext. 227
Kathleen Sutcliffe, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500, ext. 235
Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action, (412) 592-1283, cell

Clean Water Action, with over 150,000 members in Pennsylvania, has been empowering people for more than 37 years to take action to protect America’s waters, the health of our families and to make democracy work.

Earthjustice is a non-profit public interest law firm dedicated to protecting the magnificent places, natural resources, and wildlife of this earth, and to defending the right of all people to a healthy environment.