Poor well cementing: A problem on land and sea

In the Wall Street Journal today: a sharp look at the process of cementing oil wells in offshore drilling operations. Some experts think that faulty cementing could be behind the recent BP disaster that killed 11 and is spilling 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf of Mexico. Here's the WSJ:

Regulators have previously identified problems in the cementing process as a leading cause of well blowouts, in which oil and natural gas surge out of a well with explosive force. When cement develops cracks or doesn't set properly, oil and gas can escape, ultimately flowing out of control. The gas is highly combustible and prone to ignite, as it appears to have done aboard the Deepwater Horizon, which was leased by BP PLC, the British oil giant.

Concerns about the cementing process—and about whether rigs have enough safeguards to prevent blowouts—raise questions about whether the industry can safely drill in deep water and whether regulators are up to the task of monitoring them.

Sounds familiar. On a smaller scale, critics of natural gas drilling have raised concerns about faulty cementing, which probably poses more risks to water quality than the actual process of hydraulic fracturing. Natural gas drillers often claim that there have been no documented cases of water contamination from fracking -- a claim that makes sense, if you define "contamination from fracking" very narrowly, excluding all cases that involve the failure of well casing, poor cement jobs or surface spills of frac fluid.