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ISSUE:  Impact of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling/Safe Drinking Water

What is meant by Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling?

The Marcellus Region is an underground geological formation of shale extending beneath much of Pennsylvania and West Virginia and to a lesser extent, New York and Ohio.  (Gas bearing shale formations in other states have other names.  Gas extraction occurs in 36 states.  New York has banned gas drilling to protect water supplies.)  This formation holds rich deposits of natural gas but obtaining this resource presents dangers to land, water, and health.   To exploit this resource, the rock is fractured under extreme pressure from immense quantities of water and toxic rock-dissolving chemicals so that the natural gas is extruded and collected by horizontal drilling into the formation (Brasier et al., 2013).   This is known as hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as “fracking,” and is a health concern to Pennsylvania citizens because of the potential for contaminants invading ground water (Weigle, 2011).

What are UHoP’s concerns about natural gas drilling and fracking?

UHoP is not an opponent of natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale, but does oppose careless and insufficiently regulated exploitation of a valuable natural resource in which all Pennsylvanians have a stake.  It is impossible to say with any certainty that high volume frack waste with toxic chemicals under immense pressure will not leach upward into water tables – fluids have been shown to migrate upward through fissures in the rock.

The March, 2013, issue of The National Geographic Magazine says, "The more we experiment with underground drilling, the more we discover that impermeable layers can be surprisingly permeable and fractures in the rock can be interlinked in unexpected ways."

UHoP is concerned that information about the chemicals used in fracking is very difficult to obtain.   In Pennsylvania, the industry is only required to disclose this information to regulators and it is not available online.  In order to obtain information, a private citizen must submit a request to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  The request is passed to the operator, which can make a case for nondisclosure to the DEP. The DEP makes the final decision.  The industry can protect "trade secrets".

In addition to fracking, there are other serious related environmental concerns.   Gas drilling activity is intense - requires hundreds of trucks and millions of gallons of water, is noisy, extends for many months and may be repeated many times at one site.  One drilling site may have many wells.   Millions of acres needed for pipelines and access roads means permanently removing land from agriculture, forestry and other use.  Gas drilling is not a benign activity.  It is environmentally dangerous.  It threatens water sources, both surface and underground.   Most (said to be about 80%) of the toxic chemicals, water, and sand under extremely high pressure - used to free gas from rock -remain in the earth and there are no studies identifying the future status of these materials.   The concern is that those toxic chemicals will migrate up to water tables, and, according to the EPA - that has happened.

Minimizing and sugar-coating the environmental damage and dangers does not serve the best interests of either industry or society.  Drilling deep holes into the Earth's crust and injecting immense amounts of water and toxic chemicals under intense pressure in order to fracture rock strata to free gas, sometimes assisted by detonation of explosives, is by definition dangerous and environmentally destructive.

What should Pennsylvanians expect of the gas drilling industry?

At the very least, Pennsylvanians should expect the industry to follow the rules.   It is frightening to realize that safety and control violations in natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania occur every day.   A recent study demonstrated that “between Jan-
uary 1, 2011, and August 31, 2014…the top 20 most frequently-violating companies broke the rules 1.5 times per
day on average”.

As older, bigger, more financially secure, gas and oil exploration and extraction companies come on the scene, they should demonstrate increased concern with responsibility and accountability on the part of the industry.   The early days of the industry dumping frack wastes into rivers and streams, depleting small streams and taking frack wastes to municipal treatment plants that were known to be incapable of treatment should be a thing of the past.  For the most part, big business knows that all of the population (consumers!) share the same environment and that environmental protection is good business.  UHoP is concerned about any industry that will not accept responsibility for obvious accidents, omissions or commissions.   Industry must not use money to influence government and then benefit from the concessions their money has obtained.   That concern is particularly true of regulated industries whose operations have great environmental impact.


What should Pennsylvanians expect of their State government?

Some of this concern would be eased if the State would require the gas drilling industry to provide bonds in sufficient amount to reclaim whatever environmental destruction occurs.  If there is no risk, the bonds should be readily available and inexpensive.   Those who put water supplies at risk should be prepared to be accountable if damage occurs.   The Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA, federal legislation) of 1974 authorizes states to enforce minimum standards for drinking water in the states, but the Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from SWDA oversight.  Therefore, Pennsylvanians must rely on State government to protect their health and property.   Further, it is only right that the government enforce the rules and handle violations accordingly.   Surely society has learned from the lack of accountability of the coal mining industry –-- Pennsylvanians still live with polluted streams and rivers, bony piles and unreclaimed strip mines with dangerous highwalls.  The word "safe" requires definition when applied to gas drilling.   Does it mean during the drilling activity, 10-20 years into the future, or forever?  UHoP wants the best for Pennsylvania and does not want to see the mistakes of the past repeated.   The failure to protect against future water table contamination from upward chemical migration is inexcusable. Further, citizens should expect that discussions about natural gas drilling policy include input from public health experts, such as the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the university public health community, which previously have been excluded from representation on formal advisory groups related to Marcellus Shale development (Goldstein, Kriesky, & Pavliakova, 2012).

Pennsylvania is the largest natural gas-producing state without a severance tax – UHoP wonders why.   According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “at least 36 states impose some sort of severance tax, and 31 states specifically levy taxes on the extraction of oil and gas”.   In addition to enacting a severance tax, a sound public policy on shale gas development would include the rational planning of resource extraction; the protection of residential communities; reserved public lands, state forests and parks, and environmentally sensitive areas; conservation of energy supplies for future generations; adequate industry regulation and inspection; reserved supplies for domestic use and limitations on export; and direct public benefits for the depletion of a valuable natural resource in which all citizens have an interest. Pennsylvania homeowners must expect more from State government.


PROPOSED UHoP ACTION:
  • Inform you about the dangers of drilling and fracking, as well as relevant legislative developments;
  • Share your opinions with state lawmakers; and
  • Provide guidance on how to exercise your rights as constituents.

HOW YOU CAN HELP:
  • Let UHoP know your thoughts;
  • Inform and mobilize your family, friends, and neighbors (Many people are simply unaware of the environmental risks of drilling and fracking);
  • Urge your legislators to vote responsibly to enforce rules, protect your health and safeguard the natural environment; and
  • Contribute to UHoP so that the work can continue.


Additional Reading:

National Geographic articles on the process and impact of natural gas drilling:

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/03/bakken-shale-oil/dobb-text

http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2012/12/methane/lavelle-text

Environmental violations by oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania:

“Pennsylvania Finally Reveals Fracking Has Contaminated Drinking Water Hundreds of Times”

http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/08/29/3477184/pennsylvania-fracking-water-contamination/

“Fracking Failures – Oil and Gas Industry Environmental Violations in Pennsylvania and What They Mean for the U.S.”

http://environmentamerica.org/reports/amc/fracking-failures-oil-and-gas-industry-environmental-violations-pennsylvania-and-what

Representation of Hydraulic fracturing (“Fracking”) in Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling

Howarth, Robert W. and Ingraffea, Anthony. (2011). Should fracking stop? Nature, 177(September 2011), 272.

References:

Brasier, K. J., McLaughlin, D. K., Rhubart, D., Stedman, R. C., Filteau, M. R., and Jacquet, J. (2013). Risk perception of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale. Environmental Practice, 15(2), 108-122.

Goldstein , B. D., Kriesky, J., and Pavliakova, B.. (2012). Missing from the table: Environmental public health community in governmental advisory commissions related to Marcellus Shale drilling. Environmental Health Perspectives, 120(4), 483-486.

Weigle, J. L. (2011). Resilience, community, and perceptions of Marcellus Shale development in the Pennsylvania wilds: Reframing the discussion. Sociological Viewpoints, Fall 2011, 3-14.


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