Natural Gas Drilling and Marcellus Shale
Natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania state forest. Photo by Tom Pelton/CBF Staff
Safeguarding Our Waters from Drilling Contamination
As energy companies across the nation position themselves to tap into our country's natural gas reserves, many residents and environmentalists are concerned about the potential problems associated with extracting this valuable resource. No one disputes the need for local clean, efficient energy resources. But there are concerns over the land and water impacts drilling may cause.
About Marcellus Shale and the "Fracking" Process
The Marcellus Shale rock formation—lying beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia—holds huge supplies of cleaner-burning natural gas. In a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," drilling companies inject millions of gallons of water—mixed with a variety of chemicals and sand—into the shale at high pressure to crack the rock and release the natural gas.
Different wells need different amounts of water, ranging from 1 to 9 million gallons. Once the gas has been freed, some of that water, generally between 20-50 percent, comes back to the surface. That flowback is contaminated with salt, minerals, chemicals, and, in some locations, naturally-occurring radioactive isotopes. The remainder remains deep underground where it may eventually affect groundwater aquifers and local streams. Another method of disposal is to pump the fracking water into a large, lined impoundment ponds or storage tanks, to be vacuumed up later and shipped by fleets of tanker trucks to a wastewater plant. Increasingly, some companies "recycle" portions of the fracking water for use in other wells.
The Concerns About Natural Gas Drilling
The environmental, human health, and community challenges presented by natural gas drilling cannot be underestimated. Some of these include:
- Contamination of groundwater, drinking water, and local streams with toxic chemicals, high levels of salt, and even naturally-occurring radioactive materials.
- Vital habitat, forest, and pristine public lands, converted to well pads, pipelines, roads, impoundments and other infrastructure.
- Accelerated stormwater runoff—and its resulting increase in nutrient and sediment levels in nearby streams—as extensive areas are cleared, roads are degraded, and soils are compacted.
- Increased air pollution due to the hundreds to thousands of tanker truck trips necessary to bring water and equipment to a single well into production, as well as thousands of compressor stations, notorious for leaking methane and toxic gases into the air.
- Costly stress on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure from fleets of tanker trucks.
- If wells are abandoned, inadequate bonding may not cover the cost of properly plugging a well, leaving the state to cover the remaining costs.
- Outdated or inadequate requirements for how far wells must be placed from drinking water supplies, streams, wetlands and floodplains.
These and other challenges underscore the need for comprehensive analysis of the environmental and quality of life impacts of long term drilling across the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
CBF has not taken a position against natural gas development, nor have we called for a permanent ban on gas development in the region. Instead, we have embraced the precautionary principle. Our over-arching goal is to ensure that future energy development in the Chesapeake Bay region takes place in as safe and environmentally responsible a manner as possible. We have joined others in calling for a federal study of cumulative impacts of Marcellus shale development in the region and active participation in state policy initiatives (particularly in Pennsylvania).
What We've Done
In April of 2011, CBF filed a Citizen Petition with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) requesting that they require a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) be completed to assess the cumulative impacts and risks of unconventional natural gas extraction in the Chesapeake Bay states. CBF also sent a letter to President Obama in support of the legal petition, signed by more than 120 businesses, organizations, elected officials, and individuals. To date, the petition remains outstanding and has not been acted upon by the Obama administration. We will continue to look for opportunities to pursue the PEIS.
Most of our state work has focused in Pennsylvania which is the most active state, by far, for Marcellus shale drilling. Natural gas wells are being permitted at breakneck speed with scant regard to the cumulative damage that is occurring, or support for the affected communities. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP), the state issued over 1,900 permits for Marcellus shale drilling in 2009. In 2010 it issued over 3,300 more and a similar amount in 2011. Although drilling has slowed in 2012, gas production from the Marcellus and other formations is likely to keep growing for decades.
Pennsylvania's oil and gas laws had not been updated since the early 1980's and did not address issues involved with drilling in deep shale formations. As members of the Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, CBF actively engaged in discussions which lead to a list of recommendations to improve the current laws and regulations for unconventional natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. CBF also aggressively lobbied for "Act 13" that updated the Commonwealth Oil and Gas Act with many of these recommendations. While not perfect, it does provide many important changes to ensure greater environmental protections. It also provides a funding source for the Environmental Stewardship Fund as well other important initiatives, such as stormwater infrastructure. Furthermore, Act 13 was strengthened by a recent decision by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court that struck down a provision that allowed the PA DEP to permit a waiver of established setbacks from water sources and overturned a portion of the law which allowed for the pre-emption of local laws governing aspects of natural gas extraction drilling activities.
Several years ago, CBF sued PA DEP for failing to provide adequate oversight of erosion and sediment (E&S) control on gas development sites. We settled the case and now participate on a workgroup which was created as a result of our settlement. The workgroup is tasked with reviewing and providing input to PA DEP's E&S permits and associated guidance.
In the future, we will continue to work with stakeholders to ensure that guidance and policy recommendations from the Marcellus Shale Advisory are implemented by the PA DEP. We will also continue to participate in various state and federal environmental coalitions focused on this issue as well as tracking and commenting on relevant policies and regulations.