Is the giant Marcellus shale deposit under much of western Pennsylvania the state’s next big economic boom, or is it an environmental hazard waiting to happen?
Or is it both?
A panel of experts in a variety of fields attempted to answer such questions at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill Monday, Oct. 11, before a crowd of about 120. City Councilman Doug Shields and Rep. Dan Frankel were in attendance. The Environmental Committee and Hot Topics/Cool Talk Subcommittee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, the League of Women Voters of Greater Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee presented the event.
“The Marcellus issue isn’t specifically a Jewish issue, but passions are running as high in this community as in any other,” said event chair Jeff Pollock. “Halacha commands us to respect our planet generally, and our local environment specifically.”
Moderated by Rick Wice, the discussion was off and running before the first panelist even spoke — crowd members, given note cards to write questions, were bristling with energy and anticipating a heated debate.
Wice kept that heat simmering throughout the night, as he repeatedly asked the crowd to keep quiet as the panelists made their oft-contradicting points.
Though much of the crowd was educated about Marcellus shale drilling, it was the third speaker, John Baillie, of environmental policy lobbying group Penn Future, who first spoke in layman’s terms, describing the process.
Using horizontal drilling methods, natural gas can be extracted from the deposits by fracking, or pumping high-pressure water and sand into the shale. The process, while an obvious large resource for natural gas, raises environmental issues related to the water and land used to access the gas; the post-fracking liquid contains methanol, hydrochloric acid and boric acid and is not easily disposed.
Marcellus Shale, which sits about 5,000 feet underground, covers much of Pennsylvania, as well as New York, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and Ohio.
The panel also included Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition; Alan Eichler regional manager of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; Matt Pitzarella, spokesman for Range Resources, one of the companies involved in regional Marcellus shale drilling; and Charles Christen, director of operations of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.
Pitzarella said Range Resources operates about 4,000 shallow, or traditional, oil and gas wells. He stressed that his
industry “is not the second coming of the coal industry from 100 years ago,”
denoting coal mining’s negative environmental impact. “That’s not a knock at coal, it’s simply a fact. We don’t want that to be our legacy, and it won’t.”
Pitzarella said that his company was resolute in its adherence to state policies, but said further “what we need is a culture to accept being accessible and doing things the right way.”
But other speakers were more skeptical of the drilling’s environmental footprint.
Eichler outlined many of those concerns, from sight disturbances to erosion sedimentation problems, as “sites tend to be about two to three times the size of a traditional shallow gas well.”
As for the fracking water, Eichler said, “Most of that water being used for stimulation of these wells is being recycled. We think it’s a good thing.”
Eichler continued on air quality issues.
“Currently, there are no controls for oversight or regulation on these emissions on Marcellus sites,” he said. “But the equipment used is larger [than other shallow drilling wells], with bigger machines and more emissions.”
Christen said that the total disposed waste from treatment facilities adds up to 824,825 pounds of dissolved solids, in addition to the brine drainage.
“We would encourage zero discharge as soon as possible,” he said, to the night’s first burst of applause.
The panelists also addressed the locality of shale drilling — most current sites are in rural areas — and the possible need for a moratorium on the industry.
To the first, Pitzarella was resolute.
“There is not a single shale operator who has interest in drilling in Pittsburgh,” he said. “No one’s going to drill in the city of Pittsburgh. But it’s important to note that that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be done.”
A moratorium on drilling, such as the one passed by the New York Senate this year, would prohibit Range Resources and other companies from drilling in the state.
“Any kind of moratorium would be to gather more evidence about risk potentials of the industry,” said Christen. “That’s not saying there should be an outright ban. We’d like to see things slow down so we can get more evidence and feel more comfortable about this.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)