Coterra Energy, formerly Cabot Oil & Gas, has pleaded no contest to violating Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Law for polluting a small community’s water during drilling operations more than a decade ago. The case stems from the well-known situation in Dimock Township in northeast Pennsylvania, where residents of the small community experienced a multitude of problems with their drinking water supplies after Cabot began unconventional natural gas development in the area. Dimock’s water supply issues were the focus of the 2010 documentary “Gasland”. Issues differed by resident, but it was apparent and later proven that the water supply, a large aquifer on which the community sat, had been contaminated with methane. The situation reached a breaking point in 2009 when a Dimock resident’s private drinking water well exploded due to a buildup of methane. A collection of residents then filed a civil suit in federal court against Cabot. The state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and Cabot reached an agreement in 2009 that fined the driller $120,000, ordered the company to provide drinking water for affected families, pay over $4 million in settlements to those families, and placed a moratorium on drilling in the community. Over the next decade, most of the families settled out of court with Cabot in their federal suits. In the two cases that went to trial, juries ruled in favor of the residents, finding that Cabot had indeed polluted their drinking water due to negligence. In 2020, current attorney general and soon-to-be Governor Josh Shapiro filed criminal charges against Cabot: eight felonies and seven misdemeanors, all alleging violations of the state Clean Streams Law. In early 2022 Cabot merged with Cimarex Energy and formed a new company, Coterra Energy. In late November, Coterra pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor of improperly discharging industrial wastes in exchange for paying $16.29 million for public water infrastructure development in Dimock, as well as paying residents’ water bills for the next 75 years. The DEP lifted the moratorium on gas production in Dimock on the same day, ending the standing 12-year ban. This will not allow Coterra to drill any new wells in Dimock, but the company will have horizontal access to the shale formation beneath the community from wells drilled outside of the township. The agreement and lifting of the drilling ban were both praised and condemned by the parties involved. A representative from Coterra spoke positively of the agreement, stating that the agreement “resolves longstanding issues and provides for the responsible and safe development of natural resources” and that it “satisfies the desires of many of the landowners, who have communicated their support for such development over the years.” Others argued that resuming gas operations in Dimock was foolish considering the history in the area. The company must first restore water supplies to the residents and plug 18 additional wells before it can apply for permits for any new well and it must submit an operations monitoring plan for each well.
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