Hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is becoming safer in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, thanks at least in part to the state's regulation of the practice, according to researchers at the University at Buffalo's (UB) Shale Resources and Society Institute.

The study of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) showed the percentage of wells with pollution events declined 60% between 2008 and August 2011, going from affecting 52.9% of all wells drilled at the beginning of the study to 20.8% at its conclusion.

"This study presents a compelling case that state oversight of oil and gas regulation has been effective," said the study's lead author, University of Wyoming professor Timothy J. Considine. "While prior research has anecdotally reviewed state regulations, now we have comprehensive data that demonstrates without ambiguity that state regulation, coupled with improvements in industry practices, results in a low risk of an environmental event occurring in shale development, and the risks continue to diminish year after year."

In the study of 2,988 violations from nearly 4,000 natural gas wells processed by DEP between January 2008 and August 2011, a total of 1,844 (62%) of the violations were administrative and preventative in nature, while 1,144 (38%) were environmental in nature.

The researchers found that the percentage of environmental violations (as opposed to polluting environmental events) in relation to the number of wells drilled declined from 58.2% in 2008 to 30.5% in 2010, and was down to 26.5% during the first eight months of 2011.

"On this basis, the Marcellus industry has cut its incidence of environmental violations by more than half in three years, a rather notable indicator of improvement by the industry and oversight by the regulators," according to the report.

According to the report, the environmental violations were the result of 845 events, with 25 classified as "major" environmental events, defined by the researchers as major site restoration failures, serious contamination of local water supplies, major land spills, blowouts, and venting and gas migration.

Those results suggest that Pennsylvania's regulatory approach has been effective at maintaining a low probability of serious environmental events and in reducing the frequency of environmental violations, they said.

One implication of the data is that state regulation of fracking could mitigate future problems in other states, the researchers said. Proposed regulations in New York could have helped avoid or mitigate the 25 major events which were identified in Pennsylvania, according to the report.

But the future of fracking regulations and horizontal drilling in the Empire State is a political hot potato which has spurred numerous protests, particularly from opposition in New York City. The state has been operating under a moratorium on horizontal drilling since then-Gov. David Paterson ordered the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to complete a supplemental generic environmental impact statement (SGEIS) on fracking almost three years ago. Paterson requested the SGEIS because the original impact statement was completed in 1992, before technological changes in shale development. The SGEIS would serve as the agency's regulatory framework for unconventional drilling.

Two supporters of Marcellus and Utica shale gas drilling in New York -- state Sens. Thomas Libous (R-Binghamton) and James Seward (R-Milford) -- believe the DEC will ultimately approve fracking, but possibly in select areas first -- an approach the DEC has indicated it may indeed be considering (see Shale Daily, April 24). Last month DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said there is no timeline for a decision on whether fracking will be permitted in New York, but he predicted a long summer of work ahead (see Shale Daily, April 23).

In separate rulings earlier this year, county judges have upheld local ordinances that ban fracking in two municipalities in New York on the grounds that they are not preempted by state law (see Shale Daily, Feb. 29; Feb. 23). Both decisions are expected to be appealed.

The UB report was the first issued by the Shale Resources and Society Institute, which was established earlier this year (see Shale Daily, April 12). The goal of the institute is to provide "accurate, research-based information on the development of shale and other unconventional resources."