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Pennsylvania court rules in favour of drilling under refinery despite operator’s objections

13 June 2017

A Pennsylvania appeals court has upheld a decision by the state Department of Environmental Protection to issue a drilling permit for a well bored at a slant under the United Refining Co. refinery along the Allegheny River in Warren, in the north of the state. United Refining says that drilling and fracking could cause a fire or explosion, as well as a release of oil into nearby waters.

Warren Refinery - Image: URC
Warren Refinery - Image: URC

According to a report in, the situation is unique because the permit is the first to be issued in Pennsylvania for a well to be drilled beneath an oil refinery. United Refinery's facility is over a century old and covers 1.6 miles along the river's north bank.

United Refinery's objection focuses on Tank 234 at the facility, which contains 3.6 million gallons of gasoline and sits on top of a 265-by-180-foot oil plume which was discovered below the tank in 2001.

United Refinery denies its operations were the source of that plume, having never drilled an oil well on the property, and it suggests an unplugged well dating from before it bought the property in 1902 is the source of the oil leak.

Refinery officials fear that drilling and fracking could reactivate unknown old wells in the area, causing damage including potentially a large-scale fire or explosion, as well as release of oil into the nearby waters.

John D. Branch, which has already drilled 60 oil wells in Warren, said it would avoid the area under Tank 234 and any old wells at the United Refinery would already have been naturally sealed by gravel and so would not be reactivated by drilling or fracking. Branch noted it had already drilled the disputed well and that it carried out two days of fracking there in March without incident.

The Pennsylvania appeals court voted 2-1 in favour of allowing the drilling to proceed.

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