Marcellus shale sees many highlights in 2013
PITTSBURGH — The natural gas industry and environmentalists in Pennsylvania both had reasons to cheer and jeer in 2013 over the boom in Marcellus shale natural gas drilling.
Environmentalists were heartened by a state Supreme Court ruling at the end of the year that rejected significant portions of industry-friendly legislation. The state’s highest court ruled that Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration had gone too far in passing a law that gives the industry the right to operate almost anywhere it wants to, even if local municipalities object.
The justices also ruled that lower courts had erred by upholding a cumbersome set of restrictions on doctors who need information about chemicals used in the drilling process. The rulings were seen as a big win for environmentalists but won’t do much to change the gas that’s flowing from over 4,000 wells that are already producing.
The ruling also doesn’t mean new drilling will stop everywhere, since many communities welcome the jobs and royalty payments that come with drilling.
Not only that, gas continued to flow in record amounts.
The U.S. Department of Energy reported that Pennsylvania’s 2013 gas production could rank second in the nation, behind only Texas. That represents an enormous leap from just five years ago, when the gas production was almost meaningless on a national scale.
The regional production of about 13 billion cubic feet a day at the end of the year is the energy equivalent of about 2 million barrels of oil per day. For perspective, if the Marcellus shale region were a country, its natural gas production would rank eighth in the world, and it now produces more natural gas than Saudi Arabia. More than 80 percent of the production is from Pennsylvania, with most of the rest from West Virginia.
The biggest question mark for 2014 is whether Shell Oil Co. will continue to explore the possibility of building a huge natural gas processing plant in western Pennsylvania.
In March 2012, Shell chose a possible site about 35 miles north of Pittsburgh for the so-called ethane cracking, or cracker, plant.
It would convert ethane from bountiful Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas into more profitable chemicals such as ethylene, which are then used to produce everything from plastics to tires to antifreeze.
Shell’s option to buy the site expires at the end of the year, but it could easily be renewed. Shell spokesperson Kimberly Windon said last week there’s no update on the plant.
Though the industry and environmentalists remained bitterly divided over many issues, there were also some preliminary efforts to seek a middle ground.
In March, several environmental groups joined major companies such as Shell and Chevron to form the Center for Sustainable Shale. It was billed as an attempt to create voluntary standards that go beyond existing state or federal regulations. But by the end of the year no company had yet been certified to meet the new guidelines.
In eastern Pennsylvania, some well-known critics of gas drilling said they were going to try to work with the industry to resolve problems. Members of Breathe Easy Susquehanna County said they aim to promote respectful dialogue with the industry to seek the lowest possible levels of air pollution. The nonpartisan group is based in Montrose, which is about 40 miles north of Scranton.
Meanwhile, many questions remained unanswered about exactly how drilling affects the environment and human health.
In February 2012, Geisinger Health System announced plans for a comprehensive study of health impacts on people who live in areas with heavy drilling, but so far the project has failed to secure most of the funding needed to accomplish all of its goals.