Residents in Pennsylvania, and its adjacent states, find themselves at odds with their next-door neighbors. The controversy? What to do about localized natural gas deposits.
Proponents of Marcellus Shale drilling cite it as a lucrative boon economic recession, while concerned citizens worry about its potential environmental and political implications. Like petroleum drilling, natural gas drilling pits property owners against lessees, environmental groups against deregulation advocates, public good against private profiteering. Even entire townships have filed lawsuits against oil and gas operators. Sadly, these controversies are likely to remain so long as national energy concerns endure.
The Marcellus Shale deposit extends from western New York through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and Ohio. The Marcellus Shale deposit is the world’s largest on-shore natural gas reserve. The deposit lies under approximately sixty percent of Pennsylvania, encompassing forty of its sixty-seven counties. Therefore, drilling proponents view these reserves as “a winning lottery ticket” that American citizens would be foolish to throw away. The process of extracting that gas from the land, however, is fraught with environmental risks – risks industry advocates and political supporters downplay or dismiss and environmental activists decry.
“Natural gas drilling epitomizes the battle between short-term monetary gain and long-term personal and environmental safety.”
According to the Marcellus Shale Protest, the technology needed for natural gas extraction is a form of heavy industry. First, the technology requires large drilling pads averaging about twenty acres in size and supportive infrastructure such as holding ponds and condensate tanks. The technology also requires processing facilities and miles of pipe. The Marcellus Shale Protest posts on its website, what oil and gas companies intend is “not your daddy’s well,” like the simple pump landowners usually see for accessing gas at shallower depths. Further, the technology is so new its impact on the environment and on human health has not been fully studied yet.
To gauge that impact, in February 2012, the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (hereafter “SWPA”) opened an office outside Pittsburgh to support those “who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities” . SWPA cooperates with public health officials, a network of physicians, and the US EPA. “Such an effort is needed,” said one area pediatrician, so the medical community will know “what we should be on the lookout for, and how to address problems that we might see” .
The natural gas drilling industry is secretive about the chemical recipes it uses in the hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” process it uses to break up rocks beneath the surface and release the natural gas trapped inside, and this lack of transparency is worrisome. According to the Marcellus Shale Protest, fracking water contains or releases toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, strontium, and arsenic . While one industry expert, Mike Moyer, claims these chemicals could harm human health, he argues they do so “only in concentrations much higher than [those] used by the natural gas industry” . However, SWPA Director Raina Rippel notes the state lacks “clear data” about whether or not there are links between gas drilling and recent health problems .
There is also confusion about whether fracking led to methane pollution in Dimock, Pennsylvania. The state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) claimed Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas contaminated 19 homeowner wells. Tests performed in late 2011 further confirmed that “gas continues to lurk in Dimock’s aquifer,” and state regulators at first claimed faulty gas wells drilled by Cabot caused methane to leak into local water supplies. However, both Cabot and drilling company XTO, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, denied causing the pollution; XTO claimed methane was present in water samples it collected before drilling began.
Furthermore, the EPA test results from May 2012 “failed to turn up unsafe levels of contamination,” so it decided to take no further action . Residents nonetheless filed lawsuits against Cabot, particularly regarding “high and sometimes explosive levels of methane” in the water. Further, they claim the EPA issued several misleading statements regarding test results and distorted data . Last, they argue the DEP has not responded sufficiently to their medical concerns.
Meanwhile, natural gas proponents excitedly point to an August 2012 report issued by the US Energy Information Administration that states “U.S. carbon dioxide emissions resulting from energy use were the lowest in two decades”. The agency attributed this drop, in part, to reduced use of coal-fired electricity “due largely to historically low natural gas prices.” Yet whether natural gas is a cleaner energy source remains debatable. Methane frequently accompanies natural gas and could leak from wells or during transportation.
According to Tim Wall, reporting for Discovery News, methane has “approximately 20 times the ability to trap infrared radiation, or heat.” While natural gas may fill some cheap energy needs in the short term, University of Colorado climate expert Roger Pielke, Jr. argues “Natural gas is not a long-term solution to the CO2 problem”.
One solution to treat the toxic water generated by fracking is known as a deepwell injection, wherein waste fluids are disposed of by injecting them into porous rock beds situated below water supplies. In April 2012, scientists from the US Geological Survey linked small earthquakes occurring in Ohio to deep-disposal injection sites; they found increased seismic activity where deepwell injection use also had increased. While Ohio halted deepwell injection for about a year, in June 2012, members of a special committee organized by the National Research Council concluded that while fracking itself poses “little risk of an earthquake,” deepwell injection offers a higher risk . The researchers noted, “no federal or state regulation prohibits the industry from inducing earthquakes.” Ohio state regulators resumed approving new injection well sites in November 2012 (Marshall “Allows” B1).
In addition to health and environment, residents cite other drilling-related concerns. For example, archeologists worry about losing historical artifacts. As Carl Maurer, Mon-Yough Chapter of the Society for Pennsylvania Archeology Vice President, said, “In 50 years, students may want access to something, and it won’t be there” . Preserved farms, cemeteries, and other public places likewise are not protected .
Northern Pennsylvania citizens sued Central New York Oil and Gas over eminent domain, safety, and related issues. Landowner Amy Gardner says, “There’s no negotiating with this company. They come and they tell you what they’re going to do” . Similarly, townships have sued over zoning rights in cases reaching the state Supreme Court . Meanwhile, localities benefit from “drilling” or “impact” fees that generate some revenue for them, but in some instances that amount will provide “only enough cash to patch some potholes”.
Thus, natural gas drilling epitomizes the battle between short-term monetary gain and long-term personal and environmental safety. The battle has the potential to divide long-established communities just as easily as it fractures the substrata they lie upon.