March 28, 2011

The Honorable Steven Chu
United States Department of Energy
1000 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC 20585

Dear Secretary Chu:

I am deeply alarmed to learn of yet another gas-migration-related explosion in Pennsylvania.  According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) Emergency Response Program, there have been dozens of gas migration incidents in northwestern Pennsylvania recently.  Some of those have led to explosions, leading to injury and the destruction of at least two homes.  The belief that the source of the explosions is some type of thermogenic gas migration caused by extensive drilling appears to be widespread. 

Two homes in McKean County (the state leader in drilling permits for oil and gas wells) were destroyed, the first on December 12, 2010, and the second on February 28, 2011.    There have been other non-residential incidents in the Mt. Jewett Borough and a well ignition in Tally-Ho.  While investigations are ongoing, the initial determinations are that these harrowing incidents were not caused by any gas utility issue.  Rather, it appears that the gas may have migrated from deep underground during periods of high barometric pressure coupled with seismic activity and extensive new deep drilling activities.  The lack of reliable data on old oil and gas wells, which number in tens of thousands, and the deterioration of old well casings may also have contributed to the gas migration. 

The McKean County homes were located about two and half miles from each other in neighborhoods bordering Hedgehog Lane, where oil and gas drilling activities had caused methane gas infiltration into drinking water wells, leading to taste and smell impacts.  Schreiner Oil, the company involved, was ordered by the PA DEP to restore the water and has been providing bottled water to the impacted neighborhood.  The explosion of the two houses in close proximity to this troubled area certainly appears to be more than coincidence, yet the phenomenon is poorly understood and there is currently no way of preventing or even predicting when such incidents may occur.

The access to new sources of gas in the Marcellus and Utica Fields has the potential to provide good, high-paying jobs.   Yet these particularly memorable incidents require credible efforts at mitigating risks to the public.  We need to ensure that Pennsylvanians, as well as all U.S. residents, are not in any danger from the extraction of these valuable domestic sources of energy.  I urge you to coordinate with local, state, and other federal entities to ensure that appropriate actions to protect public health are implemented.  Please update me on what efforts the Department is conducting in this arena, and on how it is coordinating efforts and sharing information with the Pennsylvania DEP and with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 


Robert P. Casey, Jr.
United States Senator

cc:   The Honorable Lisa Jackson, Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
        The Honorable Michael Krancer, Acting Secretary, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection