PA Politician Calls for Moratorium on Gas Drilling Permits

As the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection prepares to issue 5,000 Marcellus Shale gas drilling permits this year, only one Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the May 18, 2010 Pennsylvania primary is calling for a moratorium on issuing new permits in a state that strongly supports gas drilling. Former Congressman Joe Hoeffel says the natural gas industry should deal with concerns about wastewater contamination before DEP issues additional permits. Gas drilling is a “pretty serious challenge” to the drinking water supply in communities, he says.

In an interview with DCBureau, Hoeffel said, “If it’s going back into groundwater, it’s got to meet safe drinking water standards. Right now, the industry wants to dilute it with freshwater and just put it all back into the groundwater, and that’s not good enough.”

Former Congressman Joe Hoeffel (center). Photo: Liz Roll
Former Congressman Joe Hoeffel (center). Photo: Liz Roll
As the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection prepares to issue 5,000 Marcellus Shale gas drilling permits this year, only one Democratic gubernatorial candidate in the May 18, 2010 Pennsylvania primary is calling for a moratorium on issuing new permits in a state that strongly supports gas drilling. Former Congressman Joe Hoeffel says the natural gas industry should deal with concerns about wastewater contamination before DEP issues additional permits. Gas drilling is a “pretty serious challenge” to the drinking water supply in communities, he says.

In an interview with DCBureau, Hoeffel said, “If it’s going back into groundwater, it’s got to meet safe drinking water standards. Right now, the industry wants to dilute it with freshwater and just put it all back into the groundwater, and that’s not good enough.”

With a history of environmental degradation, economic exploitation and safety violations, the coal industry’s record foreshadows the impact hasty drilling will have on Marcellus Shale communities. Texas drilling firms befriend cash-strapped communities overlaying the Marcellus Shale like coal companies chum up to residents of the Appalachia. While destruction from mountaintop removal coal mining is irreversible, some drilling skeptics think adequate regulations can spare some of the pristine watershed, park, farm and recreational land overlaying the Marcellus Shale.

“Pennsylvania did not adequately protect the state and our communities from the excess of the coal operation and the profit motive of the coal companies, and as a result, we’ve got acid mine pollution, polluted mine pits, collapsing mines, subsistence problems,” says Hoeffel, “We can’t make those same mistakes as natural gas begins to boom here in Pennsylvania – we’ve got to protect the environment, protect the resource and protect the state.”

Up to 9,000 feet below ground across two-thirds of Pennsylvania in the Marcellus Shale lies an immense amount of natural gas. Range Resources Corp. drilled the first two Marcellus Shale gas wells in the state in 2005. Since then, drillers have completed 1,308 Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale gas wells – out of the 3,206 permits DEP issued for the formation.

To tap into the 168 trillion to 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stored in the Marcellus Shale, well operators use a technique called hydraulic fracturing. During hydraulic fracturing, well operators inject a mixture of water and chemicals – about two to nine million gallons of water with chemicals making up about one to five percent of the total volume – into wells at extremely high pressure to crack and prop open the shale. About half of the water used in hydraulic fracturing resurfaces as wastewater – often containing minerals, salts and radioactive material transported underground. Well operators dispose of wastewater or reuse it in other wells.

Discharges from Marcellus Shale drilling have polluted waterways in Pennsylvania, including the Monongahela River, which supplies over 350,000 people with drinking water. And water tests in Dimock, Pa., where much gas drilling is occurring, have revealed unsafe levels of methane, iron and aluminum, according to an article in the Huffington Post.

DEP secretary, John Hanger, says Pennsylvania needs stricter regulations to prevent drilling discharges containing high concentrations of dissolved solids from entering rivers and streams. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Hanger at a meeting with the House Republican Policy Committee on the use and treatment of Marcellus drilling water earlier this month in Indiana: “The treating and disposing of gas drilling brine and fracturing wastewater is a significant challenge for the natural gas industry because of its exceptionally high TDS concentrations.”

Environmentalists aren’t the only opponents of hasty gas drilling. More government officials are supporting drilling delays to ensure state and federal governments have adequate regulations to protect local drinking water standards. Last year in New York, citizens concerned about the increased use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing convinced Gov. David Paterson to order the Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct an environmental impact statement on the use of these techniques. The study resulted in an effective moratorium on the issuance of drilling permits in the Marcellus Shale in that state.

Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it will spend $1.9 million to study how hydraulic fracturing impacts drinking water. Last summer, members of Congress urged their fellow lawmakers to pass the FRAC Act, which would require oil and gas companies to disclose materials in fluids used in hydraulic fracturing in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. But drilling service firms oppose revealing the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing citing proprietary secrets.

Photo: arrowenergyservices.com
Photo: arrowenergyservices.com
“When you start getting into the detailed particulars, that’s something that sort of falls back on the companies that actually create the product, particularly the composition that they have,” says Dennis Holbrook, executive vice president for Norse Energy Corporation, which has been engaged in exploration of natural gas in central New York since 1996. “And they’ve tried to treat that sort of like the…old Secret Potion #7 for Coca-Cola.”

Concerns about gas drilling go beyond water contamination. Art Hunt, owner of Hunt County Vineyards in Branchport, N.Y., an area overlaying the Marcellus Shale, drove through Dimock, Pa., on a state road to examine the impacts of drilling. He says he drove carefully as dump trucks zoomed by every few minutes, but a boulder knocked off the car’s oil pan.

“The roads were so bad that we were driving carefully, but even then, we didn’t see this boulder, which apparently must have apparently fallen off of a dump truck,” he says.

 

Allison Sickle

Allison Sickle

Allison Sickle earned a Bachelor of Arts in mass communication with a focus in print journalism and a minor in environmental studies from Loyola University New Orleans. While pursuing this degree, she developed key journalist attributes and conducted extensive environmental research. Sickle is a former environmental reporter for NRNS.

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