By Edward McAllister
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Chesapeake Energy is looking for options to plug permanently a Pennsylvania natural gas well following a blowout this week that sent drilling fluid into local waterways.
Chesapeake, one of Pennsylvania's biggest shale gas producers, used a mix of plastic, ground-up tires and heavy mud on Thursday as a temporary plug for the well, which had spewed thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, fluid into the surrounding area.
The spill, which occurred late on Tuesday, has stoked a fierce debate in the United States about fracking, a process to release gas trapped in shale formations by blasting water, sand and chemicals into the rock.
The company, which had 87 active wells in Pennsylvania in the second half of 2010, has halted all fracking activities in the state following the blowout. Fracking occurs during completion of a well, the process which prepares a well for production once drilling is complete. Seven well sites are affected by the suspension, Chesapeake said.
"The well remained in a stable condition, and there continue to be no fluid flows from the well," the company said in a statement on Friday.
A spokesman added: "We're currently determining a longer-term solution."
Options for a more permanent plug were being discussed on Friday, but no decision has been made and the company had no timeline for when such a solution would be implemented.
Proponents say extracting shale gas through fracking will slash U.S. reliance on foreign oil and cut carbon emissions. President Barack Obama has made natural gas the cornerstone of his energy policy, in part thanks to the huge reserves unlocked by the use of fracking.
Shale gas now accounts for 23 percent of U.S. natural gas production, rising from a negligible amount in 2004.
But environmentalists and residents complain that fracking can pollute water supplies, raising calls for increased regulation on natural gas production.
The cause of the leak is still unknown, Chesapeake said. It plans to investigate the blowout once the well has been permanently plugged.
(Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Dale Hudson)