Corbett says despite explosion at Greene County gas well the industry is 'safe'

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Gov. Tom Corbett said in an interview today that as horrifying, and possibly deadly, as the well fire in Greene County is, he still believes drilling in the Marcellus Shale is safe.

“I believe it’s safe. It’s been safe across the country,” he said after an unrelated press conference at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Downtown.

“Fires like this have occurred at other well sites around the country in the past,” he said.

Whether any lessons are to be learned from Tuesday’s explosion at a Chevron well in Dunkard, he said, will have to wait until more immediate concerns are resolved.

“The first thing we want to do is get the fire out. The second thing is we want to know what caused this. Was it human error or mechanical error?” he said.

“If there’s something to be improved [from this event] let’s learn from our mistakes,” he said.

One question about Chevron’s response so far was why it took so long — 10 hours — for a team of advanced well control specialists to get on site after the fire began because they had to be flown in from Houston.

A similar chain of events — and questions— occurred in April 2011, when Chesapeake had a well control event in Bradford County that released thousands of gallons of flowback fluid, but did not catch fire.

Local well control experts responded within 90 minutes, but advanced well control specialists from the company Boots and Coots had to be flown from Houston, arriving 12 hours after the incident began, before they could help bring that well under control.

As part of the $190,000 fine that Chesapeake agreed to for that incident, it “committed to utilize local well control responders” to speed a response to a well control incident, according to state documents.

But in a letter to the state then, Chesapeake explained that the “advanced well control specialists” that they flew in — like those that Chevron flew in Tuesday — “are few in number nationwide and are not located in every region of the country.”

The state DEP under former Gov. Ed Rendell said that it expected that well sites should have advanced well control specialists available within five hours of an incident occurring.

Mr. Corbett said he could not discuss what the policies were under Mr. Rendell, but during the review of the Greene County well fire, “one of the things we’ll look at is the length of time” the company took to respond.

He said he was pleased to hear that the local fire departments and other first responders had all had some training for responding to a well fire — training that was funded through the state’s impact fee on natural gas well production.

“The impact fee worked,” he said.

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