July 23, 2010
Highlighting concerns over its possible effects on groundwater, most of the 150 speakers at a US Environmental Protection Agency forum in southwestern Pennsylvania spoke out against shale gas production in the state.
The meeting Thursday night in the small town of Canonsburg, which drew 1,200 people, was the third in a series of four to be held by the EPA in shale gas-producing basins across the US to gather public input ahead of a two-year study it plans to examine the impacts of hydraulic fracturing could have on groundwater.
The Pennsylvania meeting site sits in a region that in recent years has seen a boom of gas drilling targeting the Marcellus Shale.
While a handful of speakers -- most identifying themselves as being currently or formerly employed in the gas industry or representing pro-industry organizations -- defended the use of fracking as a safe and efficient technology for unlocking the gas trapped in shale, the vast majority -- mostly area residents, scientists and conservationists -- demanded greater regulation or, in some cases, an outright ban on the practice.
Many of the latter group called on the EPA to expand the study beyond just looking at the impacts of fracking and to study what happens to the water and chemicals used in fracking before, during and after the work is done. Others wanted the study to be expanded still further, to include impacts of gas drilling on air quality, vehicle traffic and quality-of-life issues such as crime.
JOBS TO TEXANS
Although a definite link has never been established between fracking and contamination of groundwater, dozens of speakers claimed to be victims of such a link. One woman who said her family buys drinking water because her well became contaminated with styrene, which she blamed on nearby gas drilling.
Another speaker, representing a local environmental group, Clearville Citizens for Sustainability, said it tested groundwater quality prior to the onset of gas drilling and found the water to be of good quality. "After drilling we have pollution," she said.
A member of the Steel Valley Trail Council, said when the gas industry came into the Marcellus Shale, drillers touted the benefits of clean-burning natural gas and "identified oodles of jobs" for local residents. "The jobs have gone to Texans," he said. Many of the speakers said they thought that a moratorium should be imposed on new in the Marcellus drilling in Pennsylvania, similar to the one called by the state of New York as it develops new drilling guidelines.
Several pro-industry speakers dismissed the complaints of the anti-fracking speakers as alarmist and called for the EPA study to "focus on science, not emotion." A speaker who identified himself as a Halliburton employee said the agency should limit the scope of the study to what Congress asked it to focus on and to "avoid wasting time" in expanding the scope beyond that congressional mandate.
"The EPA will find that fracking poses no significant threats to health," he said.
'NO NEGATIVE EFFECTS'
Lou D'Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, said fracking was "neither new nor controversial." He cited a study the EPA undertook during the Clinton administration on the impacts of fracking in coalbed methane wells, which found "no negative effects of fracking from coalbed methane drilling."
D'Amico added that most CBM wells are drilled to much shallower depths than Marcellus Shale wells, placing them that much closer to groundwater aquifers. The EPA should avail itself of the "huge database" of information available through industry players and state regulatory agencies in pursuing its study, he said.
EPA plans to continue the scoping process through the end of the year and begin the study itself in early 2011, the EPA officials said. Preliminary results of the study should be available by the end of 2012, they said.
E.P.A. Considers Risks of Gas Extraction
By TOM ZELLER Jr.
Published: July 23, 2010
CANONSBURG, Pa. — The streams of people came to the public meeting here armed with stories of yellowed and foul-smelling well water, deformed livestock, poisoned fish and itchy skin. One resident invoked the 1968 zombie thriller “Night of the Living Dead,” which, as it happens, was filmed just an hour away from this southwestern corner of Pennsylvania.
The culprit, these people argued, was hydraulic fracturing, a method of extracting natural gas that involves blasting underground rock with a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals.
Gas companies countered that the horror stories described in Pennsylvania and at other meetings held recently in Texas and Colorado are either fictions or not the companies’ fault. More regulation, the industry warned, would kill jobs and stifle production of gas, which the companies consider a clean-burning fuel the nation desperately needs.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been on a listening tour, soliciting advice from all sides on how to shape a forthcoming $1.9 million study of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on groundwater.
With the steep environmental costs of fossil fuel extraction apparent on beaches from Texas to Florida — and revelations that industry shortcuts and regulatory negligence may have contributed to the BP catastrophe in the gulf — gas prospectors are finding a cold reception for their assertions that their drilling practices are safe.
“The industry has argued there are no documented cases of hydraulic fracturing contaminating groundwater,” said Dencil Backus, a resident of nearby Mt. Pleasant Township, at Thursday night’s hearing. “Our experience in southwestern Pennsylvania suggests that this cannot possibly be true.”
Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, a Texas-based natural gas producer, acknowledged that the gulf spill had increased public concern about any sort of drilling activity. “However, when people can review the facts, void of the strong emotions the gulf elicits, they can see the stark contrast between high-risk, deep offshore oil drilling and much safer, much lower risk onshore natural gas development,” he said by e-mail.
In this part of the country, the potentially enormous natural gas play of the Marcellus Shale has many residents lining up to lease their land to gas prospectors. Estimates vary on the precise size of the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from West Virginia across much of Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio and into the Southern Tier of New York. But by any estimate, the gas deposit is huge — perhaps as much as 500 trillion cubic feet. (New York State uses a little over 1.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas each year.)
An industry-financed study published this week suggested that as much as $6 billion in government revenue and up to 280,000 jobs could be at stake in the Marcellus Shale region.
Fracking has been around for decades, and it is an increasingly prominent tool in the effort to unlock previously unreachable gas reserves. The oil and gas industry estimates that 90 percent of the more than 450,000 operating gas wells in the United States rely on hydraulic fracturing.
Roughly 99.5 percent of the fluids typically used in fracking, the industry says, are just water and sand, with trace amounts of chemical thickeners, lubricants and other compounds added to help the process along. The cocktail is injected thousands of feet below the water table and, the industry argues, can’t possibly be responsible for growing complaints of spoiled streams and wells. But critics say that the relationship between fracking fluids and groundwater contamination has never been thoroughly studied — and that proving a link has been made more difficult by oil and gas companies that have jealously guarded as trade secrets the exact chemical ingredients used at each well.
Several other concerns linger over fracking, as well as other aspects of gas drilling — including the design and integrity of well casings and the transport and potential spilling of chemicals and the millions of gallons of water required for just one fracking job.
The recent string of accidents in the oil and gas industries — including the gulf spill and a blowout last month at a gas field in Clearfield County, Pa., that spewed gas and wastewater for 16 hours — has unnerved residents and regulators.
“There is extraordinary economic potential associated with the development of Marcellus Shale resources,” said Representative Joe Sestak, Democrat of Pennsylvania, in a statement Friday announcing $1 million for a federal study of water use impacts in the Delaware Water Basin. However, “there is also great risk.” He said, “One way to ensure proper development is to understand the potential impacts.”
Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the scrutiny was long overdue. “I think it’s all helping to shine a spotlight on this entire industry,” she said. “Corners are sometimes cut, and regulations simply aren’t strong enough.”
Fears of fracking’s impact on water supplies prompted regulators overseeing the Delaware Water Basin to curtail gas exploration until the effects could be more closely studied. New York State lawmakers are contemplating a moratorium.
At the national level, in addition to the E.P.A. study, a Congressional investigation of gas drilling and fracturing, led by House Energy and Commerce Committee, intensified last week with demands sent to several companies for details on their operations — particularly how they handled the slurry of water and chemicals that flowed back from deep within a well.
A renewed, if unlikely, push is also under way to pass federal legislation that would undo an exemption introduced under the Bush administration that critics say freed hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Last month, Wyoming introduced some of the nation’s toughest rules governing fracturing, including provisions that require companies to disclose the ingredients in their fracturing fluids to state regulators — though specifically not to the public.
Gas drillers, responding to the increased scrutiny and eyeing the expansive and lucrative new gas plays in Appalachia, are redoubling their efforts to stave off federal oversight, in some cases by softening their rigid positions on fracking-fluid disclosure. Last week, Range Resources went so far as to announce its intent to disclose the contents of its fracking fluids to Pennsylvania regulators and to publish them on the company’s Web site.
“We should have done this a long time ago,” said Mr. Pitzarella, the Range spokesman. “There are probably no health risks with the concentrations that we’re utilizing. But if someone has that concern, then it’s real and you have to address it.”
Environmental groups welcomed that, but said that clear and broad federal jurisdiction would still be needed.
“Any one accident might not be on the scale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster,” said Ms. Mall. “But accidents are happening all the time, and there’s no regime in place that broadly protects the health of communities and the surrounding environment where drilling is being done.”
That was a common theme at the meeting Thursday night.
“I can take you right now to my neighbors who have lost their water supplies,” Mr. Backus said to the handful of E.P.A. regulators on hand. “I can take you also to places where spills have killed fish and other aquatic life.”
“Corporations have no conscience,” he added. “The E.P.A. must give them that conscience.”