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What's the Impact of the Marcellus Shale on our Environment?

Pittsburgh is at the center of another energy revolution.

The drilling of the Marcellus Shale promises jobs in areas hard hit by unemployment, lucrative leases for landowners and a new energy economy. The potential is staggering. As one industry executive put it, Pennsylvania is to natural gas what Saudi Arabia is to oil. The Marcellus will be bigger to the state than the blast furnace, says another.

Companies are coming in from all over the world. The Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection (DEP) has handed out drilling permits for more than 3,000 wells to date. This is only the beginning of a job boom that many say will reduce our dependence on foreign oil and generate tremendous wealth.

The industry is promising 20,000 new jobs by 2020, however lasting they may be. The gas brings with it the potential for new energy technologies too, such as natural gas-fueled public transportation and vehicles.

But at what cost? 

Like Edwin Drake who successfully figured how to drill for oil in Titusville 150 years ago, the drilling industry has tapped a new, cost-effective way to wrestle gas from a rock. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing--or fracking--permit the drilling of multiple wells from a single spot by going down and sideways at various angles. A mix of water, sand and chemical additives is then pumped in at high pressure, cracking the shale like concrete and driving the gas to the surface.

The process uses three to five millions of gallons of water per well. While some companies are committed to recycling the used water, wastewater disposal is not consistent across the board. Environment experts say that regulations on total dissolved solids need to be updated and the "Halliburton loophole," which exempts hydraulic fracturing from the Clean Water Act, needs to be closed.

The industry says it's addressing these issues, meeting with state leaders, looking into new technologies that will address water quality and well casing issues. In the meantime, the EPA is conducting a comprehensive $1.9 million study, which hopes to answer the scientific questions raised by the fracking process. As the industry revs up the drills, local public health leaders and environmentalists are formulating their own thoughtful responses.   

Dr. Conrad "Dan" Volz at University of Pittsburgh is the Director of the Center for Healthy Environments & Communities (CHEC) in the Graduate School of Public Health. Volz is the go-to expert on local public health issues. Last March Rolling Stone polled  him about his concerns on the effects of coal ash.

Volz's biggest concern is water. "Our rivers and streams are a defining feature of our landscape, yet we have no river basin commission to regulate the drilling. It's an environmental justice issue for a region that for so long has suffered the environmental consequences," he says.

The Marcellus Shale spans several states. New York State has a moratorium on drilling, pending the completion of further study. The City of Philadelphia and Delaware River Basin Commission, likewise, have refused to allow drilling in sensitive areas. Who will protect the waters that flow into the Mon and Allegheny and beyond through the 17-states that make up the Ohio River Basin if we don't have a basin commission, he asks.  

CHEC is working with citizens groups across four states to create initiatives and develop a website to track drilling operations and water quality. One is Youghiogheny Riverkeeper, a pilot citizen surveillance program dedicated to the protection of the local watershed.

"This is an incredibly huge and intense industry," says Volz. "TDS (total dissolved solids) mask something. That's why we have these (watchdog) projects underway. If there's a spill, leak, well blowout or casing failure, runoff could flow into the surface water. The shale itself contains elements. These elements have health effects.

"And that's just the tip of this. Companies that don't recycle the water are channeling it into coal mines or wastewater treatment sewage. We're concerned with the metals the sewage process doesn't take out."

Terry Collins, Thomas Lord Professor of Chemistry and head of the Institute for Green Science at Carnegie Mellon, is a pioneer in the research of green chemistry. Technologies that remove toxins from the water, one of his biggest concerns, are the focus of his lifelong research.

"Endocrine disruptors work their disruptions at ultra low concentrations," he explains. "It's inconceivable that the chemicals will not find their way into people's wells and drinking water. I'm troubled that this industry has a federal pass on all these processes that have an effect on our water.

"These jobs are hard on populations and don't last long," he adds. "It's an itinerant working group. An alternative would be to put our vast carbon resources behind solar. We're awash in energy and we have the technologies to capture it. We need a national strategic plan that focuses on solar, wind and geothermal as much as possible. I firmly believe if we do not make major technology changes our children will have no future."

Nels Johnson, director of Conservation Programs at The Nature Conservancy, is working with government agencies and drilling companies to find solutions that will benefit the environment and establish guidelines for the industry.

The Conservancy is currently engaged in a study of the cumulative impact of all forms of energy on the environment, Marcellus Shale as well as wind, solar and coal. The state has 80,000 stream miles, 20 percent of which are considered "critically impaired" by the EPA and DEP, even after a century of recovery.

"Are we going to put it all at risk again and have another wave go back through and leave us with a tattered remnant of our forests and streams?" he asks. "We believe that we can work with government agencies to find strategies to minimize the impacts. But first we need to understand what the tradeoffs may be."

The Conservancy is developing a spatial analysis of how shale drilling might affect habitats in the region, taking a tally of the acreage cleared for well sites, pipelines and other energy infrastructure.  It hopes to generate a picture of the effect on interior forest conditions and forest edges.

"We need to determine the best solutions and best science," he says. "If we want to have an influence, they have to know what we care about."  

is on the legislative front, working at the state level to set tighter standards on wastewater disposal, protect state forest land and push for a severance tax on drillers, says Jan Jarrett, president and CEO of the state's leading environmental advocacy organization.

"We are not opposed to drilling," says Jarrett. "We think the Marcellus Shale presents a substantial economic opportunity. Of the fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest. But we all need to recognize that the amount of land involved is enormous.

"The industry claims that we'd be killing an infant industry by imposing the tax, but these aren't infant industries," she adds.

About 1.5 million acres of the state's 2.1 million acres of forest sit atop the Marcellus. The state has made 700,000 acres, about one-third, available through leases.  "That's enough," Jarrett says. "The rest of the forest land is too environmentally sensitive."

PennFuture is keeping a watch on several bills and regulations that will place limits on TDS levels and impose stricter standards on well casings. Among them, HB 2235 will put a five-year freeze on drilling in state forests. 

"This is a very political process," Jarrett says. "We have an opportunity to do this right and make sure this resource can bring the benefits and wealth it promises and, at the same time, minimize the environmental impacts as much as possible."

Range Resources' Matt Pitzarella believes that companies like his can get it right. Range is committed to several "best practices" in the industry, including recycling the fracking water, advanced irrigation to transfer water, "green additives" and additional safety measures, he says.

"One of the greatest challenges is proving to people we are not the second coming of the coal industry," says Pitzarella. "We've been doing this in Texas since 1982. If there were major causes of concern, you would have heard about it where it has been going on for decades. The benefits far outweigh the challenges if done properly."

Marcellus Shale Coalition's Kathryn Klaber, executive director, agrees that the industry on the whole is committed to all the expressed concerns.  A group of very smart people at the DEP are working with the industry to figure this out, Klaber told a standing-room-only audience at MIT's Enterprise Forum in May.

"There's a lot of legs on this stool to getting this right," says Klaber. "You can rest assured that these standards are a top priority."

All in all, there's a lot at stake in drilling the gas and getting it right.

"If it's done the right way, the long term benefits will benefit all of Pennsylvania," says Pitzarella.

In the pictures (from the top): Terry Collins; Dan Volz; Matt Pitzarella

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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