Sunday, January 24, 2010

Water is the Debate for Marcellus Shale Natural Gas

By Betsey Piette
Published Jan 23, 2010 8:50 AM

Plans by Pennsylvania to expand leasing of public land for shale gas drilling are fueling a growing public concern over potential hazards to the environment and drinking water supplies.

As the state seeks sources of immediate revenue to cover budget gaps, it is offering over one-third of its forest land for gas exploration of a mile-deep underground rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale. Similar gas drilling on private lands using hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a practice that forces millions of gallons of water laden with sand and toxic chemicals into underground shale layers, has already resulted in significant contamination of waterways and private water wells.

Yet on Jan. 12 natural gas drillers bid $128.5 million to develop 32,000 acres of Pennsylvania state forests, twice the revenue the state had budgeted. Under pressure from the state Legislature to generate $60 million from new leases, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources conducted bidding under duress, setting a minimum bid of $2,000 an acre. However, the profits to be made from this drilling are so lucrative that drillers offered an average of $4,020 per acre, almost double what such leasing generated two years ago.

The new lease agreements mean that about 692,000 acres of the 2.1 million acres of state forest will be under lease. Currently 750 wells are in production on conservation department lands, but state officials anticipate that more than 1,000 new Marcellus wells could be developed in the next 10 years.

The expansion of Marcellus drilling activity has been staggering. Eight years ago Pennsylvania offered 218,000 acres at $30 an acre but drillers protested the rate was too high and refused to bid on three-quarters of the tracts. In 2008 a single conservation department auction of 74,000 acres with an average lease of $2,243 per acre generated $166 million, surpassing the total income from the previous 53 years.

Last fall, after heavy lobbying by the gas industry, Gov. Ed Rendell opposed a planned severance tax on natural gas drilling that would have generated $90 million. Despite calls for state officials to evaluate the environmental impact of gas drilling before leasing more land, one day after the massive bidding Senate Republicans in Harrisburg announced they already had an agreement in place for additional leasing in 2011, and Rendell said he did not rule out leasing high-value parcels to generate more income.

The question is at what cost.

John Quigley, acting secretary of the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, expressed concern that the rush to lease state forests could threaten tracts that have taken over a century of state intervention to slowly recover after being denuded by lumber companies.

Across New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania, families living near gas drilling sites are finding their drinking water polluted by methane gas and the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. director David Masur noted, “The drilling companies have shown their disregard for protecting our drinking water — seven Pennsylvania counties’ well water has been contaminated by methane, and companies are dumping toxic pollutants into nearby waterways across the state.”

In Candor, N.Y., Vietnam veteran Fred Mayer found that explosive vapors now issue from his tap along with the water. Mayer demonstrated by using a charcoal grill lighter to ignite water running from his kitchen faucet. (, Jan. 2) In a number of similar cases, families have had their personal water wells and even houses explode from methane build-up.

On Jan. 4 protesters gathered outside New York City Hall to speak out against Gov. David Paterson’s plan for additional gas drilling across New York state. Of particular concern was the potential for drilling in the city’s upstate watershed, which provides unfiltered drinking water to 9 million New Yorkers.

While Paterson’s plan claims the state Department of Environmental Conservation can safely monitor the toxic chemicals and heavy environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing, there is little evidence that this is happening.

Chesapeake Energy, one of the major players in the expanding natural-gas-drilling industry, estimates that it could drill 13,500 to 17,000 Marcellus Shale wells over the next 20 years. Each well requires 2 to 9 million gallons of water for hydraulic fracturing. Already several Marcellus operators have taken water from rivers and streams without authorization.

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