Opinion- The Marcellus Shale Play - What’s In Store For PA’s Natural Resources?
They call it the “Pennsylvania Wilds,” over 6 million acres of relatively unspoiled forests and mountains in 12 northern Pennsylvania counties. Just over 2 million of those acres are public land, an area equivalent to the acreage occupied by Yellowstone National Park.
As created in 2003, the concept called for the Deptartment of Conservation and Natural Resources to help develop tourism through improvements to state parks; a process which was also expected to develop additional tourism businesses catering to anglers, hunters and others who are seeking an outdoor getaway experience.
Of course we would hope that the underlying purpose of creating the Pennsylvania Wilds was for the preservation of what already exists there; unbroken forested areas, pristine mountain streams, serenity, and the ability to view an incredible array of stars in the sky on a clear night. After all, it is called the Pennsylvania Wilds!
Well, for those of you who haven’t visited the northern part of our commonwealth recently, let me tell you that the forested areas are seeing a proliferation of new roads being built, the water flow of some streams is being siphoned off and occasionally polluted, and the starry skies are being blotted out by a relatively new entity; the lights from around-the-clock activity on natural gas drilling sites.
By now we would have to assume that most Pennsylvanians have heard about the natural gas being extracted from a widespread geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale. The drilling companies refer to this as the Marcellus “play,” or focused drilling efforts within this region.
Although geologists have known for some time that this formation contained vast untapped wealth, it has not been until more recently that a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” has been employed to successfully extract the gas from depths of a mile or more beneath the surface.
Okay, so all this sounds great for our ailing economy, right? Well yes, if the proper environmental procedures and regulations are followed and enforced as the tempo of drilling activity begins to ramp up across the northern tier counties, as well as in southwestern Pennsylvania.
Unfortunately however, we have already witnessed some significant negative environmental impacts result from the activities of several of the drilling companies who either chose not to follow the rules, or were simply careless in their execution.
Here in simplified form is what’s involved in the development of a typical Marcellus gas well. First, an access road must be built, or an existing forest road must be improved to handle the heavy truckloads of equipment and water. Next, a well pad site, generally of about 5 acres, is cleared from the forest, and a huge retention pond is excavated.
The drilling procedure requires millions of gallons of water to be brought to the site for the fracking operation, which then requires the addition of a large number of potentially toxic chemicals. After the fracking operation is completed, the water contaminated by both the additives and naturally-occurring chemicals flows back to the surface where it will either be temporarily stored on site or removed and treated before discharge into a receiving river or stream.
So what are the major concerns surrounding all these activities? Construction of the roads and pad sites must follow Best Management Practices (BMPs) to avoid erosion and sedimentation runoff to streams. Source water must be evaluated and permitted for safe levels of withdrawal.
Construction of retention ponds must utilize the highest quality fail-safe liner materials to prevent leaching of contaminants into groundwater, and more and better off-site treatment plants must be built to handle the ever-increasing volumes of contaminated water.
And above all, competent supervision must be available at all times on site to oversee the drilling operations and handle any environmental problems that might occur.
The Department of Environmental Protection seemingly has shot itself in the foot when it comes to protecting our natural environment from the inevitable problems of rapidly escalating gas extraction activities.
Earlier this year, DEP made the decision to dismiss the county conservation districts as the watchdogs over local construction activities, and then instituted a new fast-track permitting rule whereby construction plans would no longer be subjected to scrutiny by DEP as long as a registered engineer’s certification appeared on the plans.
In a recent case involving problems with well sites in several northern tier counties, it was determined after the fact that the DEP-approved engineer’s plans failed to include some of the most basic measures to control erosion and sedimentation at these sites.
And then there’s the major issue of our state legislators failing to pass a gas severance tax which would not only pump much-needed General Fund capital into the state coffers, but also provide a funding source to help pay for future environmental mishaps.
Gov. Rendel had proposed such a tax in June of this year to help balance the state budget, but later backed down, conceivably due to the more than $1,000,000 spent by oil and gas lobbyists to defeat such a tax in Pennsylvania. It is a fact that every other major natural gas-producing state imposes a severance tax on such mineral extractions.
The somewhat lame argument later used by the governor and apparently a majority of our legislators was that if the tax was added, gas extraction companies would simply pull up stakes and move elsewhere. But the gas is here - trillions of cubic feet of it!
When the state budget was finally passed this year, the agencies which suffered the largest cutbacks are the same agencies we depend on to oversee the health of our natural environment; the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
With such deep cuts in their operating budgets, and the inevitable scaling back of agency personnel and programs, now more than ever it is imperative that our legislators support and pass a gas severance tax which allocates a substantial percentage to our environmental programs.
Let’s keep the “wild” in Pennsylvania Wilds!
Robert M. Pennell is Secretary -PA Council of Trout Unlimited and can be contacted by writing 2319 Valley Road, Harrisburg, PA 17104
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