Environmental Worries Shadow Natural Gas Expansion

 

DAMASCUS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — To Vern Crum, drilling for natural gas is an important economic opportunity: for himself, for this sleepy corner of northeastern Pennsylvania, and potentially for the whole country. Crum, who runs a cattle feedlot, is one of 1,500 private landowners here who recently leased their property to a natural gas company. Test drilling began on his land about three weeks ago. "It's been a very pleasant experience," says Crum, who has been promised royalties on any gas that is eventually found.

Some of Crum's neighbors, however, don't share his view. Sheila Dugan, who lives a few doors down, sees gas drilling as an environmental disaster waiting to happen. Damascus Township sits along the banks of the Delaware River, and Dugan fears that drilling will endanger a waterway that is home to an abundance of wildlife and provides drinking water to an estimated 16 million people, including those in Philadelphia and New York. "They said it was safe to drill in the Gulf, too," a sign in Dugan's front yard says.

The neighborly discord over a single gas well in Pennsylvania — where more than 70,000 are already in operation — illustrates the public divide as the natural gas industry, which is long-established in traditional mineral states such as Colorado and Wyoming, makes its way east. As Stateline reported last week, scores of energy companies are pursuing a "modern-day gold rush" in Pennsylvania and surrounding states, racing to drill into a mile-deep rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale. The formation stretches from Ohio to upstate New York and is believed to hold the largest untapped natural gas reserves in the nation.

But environmental worries have accompanied gas drilling on its migration eastward. They have grown louder as the industry moves into sensitive environments — such as the Delaware watershed  - that provide drinking water to major urban areas. And they center on a common but controversial drilling technique known as "hydraulic fracturing." Many environmentalists believe the process, also known as "fracking," poses a serious threat to local water supplies, with the potential of toxic and even flammable chemicals pouring from household faucets and shower heads in areas where it takes place. City council members in Philadelphia and New York City have stridently opposed fracturing in the Delaware watershed.

State governments are at the center of the debate because they are responsible for regulating gas drilling and striking a balance between economic growth and environmental safety. Regulators in the Marcellus Shale region say they are adequately overseeing the local gas rush, and stress that they aren't afraid to punish energy companies that aren't working safely. Pennsylvania has already done so, winning accolades from environmental groups. New York — which is just across the river from Damascus Township — has a de facto moratorium on certain kinds of drilling in the Delaware watershed while its Department of Environmental Conservation considers the impact. Meanwhile, a joint state-federal oversight board, the Delaware River Basin Commission, is deciding whether to allow full-fledged gas drilling here. So far the board has allowed only a few test wells, including Crum's.

Despite the initial response of state regulators, many observers question whether they have the resources — or the will — to oversee the industry on the scale that is necessary. They point to huge state budget shortfalls, a thin fleet of environmental experts and the financial capacity of the oil and gas industry to elect and lobby politicians and other state officials. Under these circumstances, critics say, serious environmental problems from drilling are inevitable.

Questions over fracking

Energy companies are racing to explore vast untapped natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that stretches from Ohio to New York. As they do so, they are approaching sensitive environments, including the Delaware River, which provides drinking water to an estimated 16 million people.

Hydraulic fracturing uses huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals to violently break apart underground rock, freeing natural gas that is trapped inside it. Fracturing in some form has taken place in the United States for decades, but the kind that is happening in the Marcellus Shale region is different because of the extreme depth and geologic makeup of the rock being drilled. Marcellus Shale fracturing, for one thing, requires much larger amounts of water — often up to 5 million gallons for each well — and the toxic solution of water, sand and chemicals is pumped underground at much higher pressure than elsewhere. The drilling operation is so powerful that seismic tests are conducted beforehand.

Environmental fears over fracturing arise from three basic questions: where such vast amounts of water will come from; which potentially harmful chemicals will be mixed with it on its way underground; and, perhaps most importantly, what will happen to the tainted, chemical-laden wastewater once it has been used to extract gas. State regulators have a say in all three.

The regulators are tasked with ensuring that water is not taken from rivers and other sources at dangerously high levels. They can require energy companies to disclose the exact chemicals that are used in the fracturing process — which often are considered company trade secrets. And they are responsible for inspecting gas wells and making sure, among other things, that those chemicals do not find their way into aquifers or other sources of drinking water, either from the underground drilling process itself or from accidents on the surface, such as spills from storage tanks.

State regulators from Alaska to West Virginia have long insisted that there is no inherent danger in the process itself, including, most recently, in a 2009 survey filled out by 13 of the 34 natural gas producing states. "To date there have been no verified instances of harm to groundwater as a result of hydraulic fracturing," the survey by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an association of state regulators, concluded. The federal Environmental Protection Agency reached the same finding in a 2004 study , but it is currently reviewing that study, which was widely criticized by environmentalists as superficial.

For many residents of areas where hydraulic fracturing takes place, it doesn't matter what state and federal experts say. To them, the brown, smelly water that is coming out of their faucets — and which wasn't there before gas drilling began — is proof enough that something is wrong. In some cases, residents have been able to light their tap water on fire due to the presence of extremely high levels of flammable methane, which they believe comes from nearby gas drilling.

Nationally, many incidents of contamination in private water wells and other drinking water sources have been reported in areas where fracturing occurs. More than a dozen families in Dimock, Pennsylvania — a small town about 90 minutes west of Damascus Township — have filed a class-action lawsuit against Cabot Oil and Gas over heavily contaminated water and related health problems. Many environmentalists, meanwhile, believe it is outrageous for states to argue that fracturing itself may not be to blame when the chemicals it uses start showing up in drinking water sources.

"Who cares how it got there? There's fracking fluids in a private water well!" Pat Carullo, a member of a Pennsylvania anti-drilling group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, bellowed during a recent interview with Stateline . Carullo believes it is only a matter of time before fracturing is banned in the Delaware watershed, noting that the Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees residents the right to "pure water."

State oversight has gaps

Some states have responded aggressively to growing concerns over gas drilling and, in particular, hydraulic fracturing. Colorado and Wyoming have beefed up their drilling regulations — demanding, for instance, that gas companies disclose the chemicals they use in fracturing. Pennsylvania also is asking companies to reveal their fracturing chemicals , and its Department of Environmental Protection has more than doubled its enforcement staff since 2008.

Jan Jarrett, head of the environmentalist group PennFuture, says she has been "pretty happy with the enforcement that happens once (state regulators) discover problems. They have not been hesitant to give out fines, and substantial fines, and in some cases shut (wells) down." What troubles Jarrett, however, is that she doesn't believe there are enough regulators on the ground in the first place.

Pennsylvania, for example, has 193 enforcement staff and more than 70,000 wells, meaning that each regulator would have to inspect 363 wells to complete a statewide review. Since that is unlikely, regulators focus instead on wells that are in early stages of development, according to John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. But Jarrett believes more regular inspections would reduce the potential for water contamination and other accidents. "Gas industry behavior would fundamentally change," she says, "if they knew that every week a DEP guy was coming."

Compared to most other states, Pennsylvania's enforcement staff is huge. In Colorado — where gas drilling permit applications have increased eightfold in the past decade — there are 15 full-time inspectors for 43,000 wells, or a ratio of 2,867 wells for each inspector, according to Dave Neslin, the director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

What also worries environmentalists is that many state politicians see the need for less — not more — regulation. In Colorado and New Mexico, gubernatorial candidates have called for regulations to be weakened, arguing that they have a negative effect on business. New York's Republican gubernatorial nominee, Carl Paladino, supports natural gas drilling in the Delaware watershed, despite objections from New York City. In Pennsylvania, a legislator whose district sits in the heart of the Marcellus Shale region, Jeffrey Pyle, told Stateline that he is working against stronger regulations, as well as a proposed severance tax on natural gas. "The nightmare scenario for us is that (gas companies) would get tired of the hoops they have to jump through here," Pyle says. "It wouldn't so much be the tax as it would be regulation."

Another concern often brought up by environmentalists is that state officials' relationship with the gas industry is too cozy. Not only is the industry a major political donor, but it also regularly lobbies the state regulatory bodies that oversee it, raising conflict-of-interest questions. For instance, the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, the national organization for state oil and gas regulators, regularly hosts conferences that are sponsored by energy firms doing business in their states . In many states, moreover, regulatory salaries are paid for by drilling permit fees, meaning that inspectors' jobs may depend on the number of wells being drilled. "It gets very incestuous," says Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

Is there a federal role?

Amid well-publicized incidents of water contamination, the federal government is beginning to take a more active interest in fracturing — mainly in the form of the EPA study that is now under way . Some members of Congress also are trying to step up efforts to regulate the technique, which is exempt from federal oversight under a 2005 congressional provision that many environmentalists now deride as the "Halliburton loophole."

The natural gas industry, along with most state regulators, supports state — rather than federal — oversight. "Historically, oil and gas operations have been regulated by the states, and that is due to the differences in geology and topography and the climate of the state," says Stephanie Meadows, a senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute. "The officials there simply know the situation better."

But the evidence is quickly mounting against states and the industry, argues Sinding, of the Natural Resources Defense Council. She believes a federal role is warranted, given incidents of water contamination from Wyoming to Pennsylvania.

"Despite the repeated claims by state regulators that they're up to the job, the growing number of stories ... is proof of why there's a federal role," she says. "The federal government at least needs to get its arms around what's going on in the states." 

 
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