Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Changes to oil and gas act benefit industry, panelists say

by SAM KUSIC skusic@indianagazette.net on March 25, 2012 12:00 AM

Pennsylvania's Republican-led legislature capitulated to the natural gas industry when it adopted changes to the state's Oil & Gas Act, and residents ought to press for federal intervention, according to a director of a national environmental group.

Myron Arnowitt, Clean Water Action's Pennsylvania director, said Saturday that the changes, codified under Act 13 of 2012, amount to an industry land grab.

"Act 13 is, by definition, a land grab. It's a way for the industry to obtain control over the land in a way no industry has been able to do in Pennsylvania," Arnowitt said, speaking during a panel discussion Indiana University of Pennsylvania about Marcellus shale drilling.

The discussion was one of numerous sessions being held as part of the Association of Appalachian Studies' annual conference.

Now in its 35th year, the national conference brings together academics, teachers, students, artists and activists who are interested in Appalachia.

It is the first time IUP has hosted the conference, which concludes today.

Aside from establishing a de facto tax on shale gas wells, Act 13 requires that municipalities allow oil and gas wells within all zoning districts, including residential zones. It also limits the ability of municipalities to adopt their own unique regulations related to oil and gas drilling.

Arnowitt said that control of land has always been a key issue for extractive industries operating in Appalachia. That control was jeopardized, he said, as Pennsylvanians began pushing against shale-gas drilling through local governments, which responded by adopting zoning ordinances intended to regulate the industry.

"The gas industry immediately realized this as a very significant threat to their future in this state, and they made it a top priority to eliminate local ordinances, especially zoning ordinances," he said.

To that end, the industry approached the government and said it would accept a minimal tax on the wells and minor revisions to the Oil & Gas Act in exchange for the elimination of local control.

"This is the basis of the deal that was recently passed by the Pennsylvania state legislature," he said.

"We need federal action in order to address the lack of protection that states like Pennsylvania have given us," Arnowitt said.

Also speaking on the panel was IUP professor Brian Okey, an environmental geographer who presented to-date results of the university's water testing program at Beaver Run Reservoir. IUP is under contract with Beaver Run's owner, the Municipal Authority of Westmoreland County, to conduct periodic water testing at the reservoir, where Consol Energy has built four horizontal drilling pads close to the reservoir's shore lines. Consol has plans to build up to four more pads.

The reservoir provides drinking water to roughly 130,000 customers.

Okey said that based on nine months of testing for dissolved solids and heavy metals, IUP researchers haven't found evidence that gas wells are impacting the reservoir itself. But he said they have found high acidity and dissolved metal levels in some of the tributaries feeding the reservoir.

They aren't sure to what degree, if at all, the wells are responsible since there are other pollution sources that might be contributing, particularly acid mine drainage into the tributaries. Salt runoff from wintertime road maintenance and runoff from nearby farms are other contributing sources, he said.

"There's a story here that we're teasing out, but it will be a while before we understand how the system works and how it responds to seasonal changes in precipitation and other things," Okey said.

The results Okey presented shouldn't be taken as blanket proof that shale gas drilling holds minimal environmental consequences. For one, IUP doesn't yet have long-term data to work with. Also, the scope of the testing is limited to water quality only.

And as other panel members pointed out, there are other environmental effects to consider, such as air pollution.

David Lampe, a Duquesne University biologist, said methane leaking from the wells is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Also, he said smog created by heavy equipment operation is a problem.

Consider, he said, Pavillion, Wyo., a town just east of the Rocky Mountains and near the state's gas fields.

"Those people have smog problems worse than Los Angeles at certain times of the year," he said.

Another problem to consider, said Ronald Bishop, a biochemist and biosafety researcher at SUNY-Oneonta, is the hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater that is produced through hydraulic fracturing. Also known as "fracking," the process is one of the steps in building a producing shale gas well. After a well has been drilled, high volumes of water are injected at high pressures into the well bore. The pressurized liquid fractures the shale, which allows the natural gas it bears to escape.

Because the shale was once the bottom of an ancient sea, the water comes back up to the surface nearly as salty as ocean water. The used water also holds other contaminants such as heavy metals and radioactive elements. The water is further contaminated by chemicals that are added when the water is injected. Those chemicals include things such as sand, industrial soaps, anticorrosive agents and biocides.

What to do with the wastewater is a problem, Bishop said, and so is tracking where that water ultimately ends up. To cut corners, some haulers illegally dump it, he said.

Bishop said there are some efforts to recycle the wastewater, but that, too, has problems because recycling processes create chemically complex waste sludges.

"No one has ever attempted to study the chemical interactions of (wastewater from multiple shale-gas wells when mixed together)," he said. "What I have seen repeatedly in trying to study the industry is they don't do safety studies routinely. They seem to believe that plausible deniability is better than informed precaution."

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