Drilling under Pa.’s ‘Gasland’ town has been banned since 2010. It’s coming back

A year after pleading no contest to criminal charges, one of Pennsylvania’s leading natural gas companies is poised to drill and frack in the rural community where it was banned for a dozen years for polluting the water supply.

Coterra Energy Inc. has won permission from state environmental regulators to drill 11 gas wells underneath Dimock Township, in the state’s northeastern corner — the sweet spot of the largest natural gas field in the United States, according to well permit records reviewed by The Associated Press. Billions of dollars worth of natural gas, now locked in shale rock deep underground, await Coterra’s drilling rigs.

Some landowners, long shut out of royalties because of the state’s lengthy moratorium, can’t wait for the Houston-based drilling giant to resume production in Dimock. Other residents dread the industry’s return. They worry about truck traffic, noise and the threat of new contamination.

Coterra has not set a date for the resumption of drilling. A company spokesperson, George Stark, said “Coterra is committed to safe and responsible operations wherever we work.” Under its deal with the state, the driller agreed to monitor drinking water supplies within 3,000 feet of the new gas wells and take other steps designed to mitigate risk.

Dimock, a tiny crossroads 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the New York state line in northeastern Pennsylvania, became ground zero in a national debate over fracking — the extraction technique that spurred a boom in U.S. oil and gas drilling — after residents began reporting that methane and drilling chemicals in the water were making them sick.

A state investigation concluded that faulty gas wells drilled by Coterra’s corporate predecessor, Cabot Oil & Gas, had allowed methane to leak uncontrolled into the community’s aquifer. Cabot was banned from Dimock in 2010 after regulators accused the company of failing to keep its promise to restore or replace the water supply. An Emmy Award-winning documentary, “Gasland,” showed residents lighting their tap water on fire.

After years of litigation and a grand jury probe that resulted in criminal charges, the company pleaded no contest to a single misdemeanor count Nov. 29, 2022. Under a plea agreement, Coterra agreed to foot the bill for a $16 million public water system to supply 20 homes whose water wells had been damaged, and to pay for temporary treatment systems for those who want them.

But for some of the residents, elation about the water line turned to anger when they learned the Department of Environmental Protection had quietly lifted its long-term moratorium on gas production in Dimock. State officials have denied that Coterra pleaded no contest in exchange for being allowed to drill, but residents like Victoria Switzer said they felt deceived.

“I have seen how justice played out here, and it’s not justice,” said Switzer, whose well was among those found to be contaminated, and who has not had a drink from her kitchen faucet since 2009.

Coterra remains prohibited from drilling inside the 9-square-mile (23-square-kilometer) moratorium area itself. The company plans to start the wells outside of Dimock and drill horizontally underneath the community. Some of the planned wells will be nearly 5 miles (8 kilometers) long and well over a mile deep, snaking under the land of more than 80 individual property owners, according to permit records.

The landowners are sitting on a gas gusher. Dimock’s natural gas could be worth $2.5 billion to $3.8 billion, according to Terry Engelder, a retired Penn State geologist whose 2008 calculation of enormous reserves in the vast Marcellus Shale natural gas field helped spur a drilling frenzy in Pennsylvania.

  • December 20, 2023
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