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Environmental Chief: Drilling Boom Must Be "Watch-Dogged"

John_Hanger The amount of natural gas in a black rock formation under Pennsylvania is so vast that it could supply all of America’s energy needs for 10 to 15 years, said John Hanger, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, in an interview with Bay Daily.

The development of a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing to unlock the gas in the Marcellus Shale formation is a “game changer” for the United States, he said. The discovery could provide cheaper energy and help in the fight against global warming, Hanger said.

Drill rig workers, three But drilling is also environmentally invasive. In northeastern Pennsylvania, drilling has caused chemical spills, contamination of drinking water with methane, an explosion, and fish kill. These incidents in the Dimock area were reported in Monday’s Bay Daily.  The problems illustrate the need for Pennsylvania to become increasingly vigilant over the drilling boom, Hanger said.

“We are increasing oversight over this industry, because it is imperative that as this industry grows, oversight must accompany it,” the state environmental secretary said in a recent telephone interview conducted for public radio and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

About 650 natural gas wells have sprouted across Pennsylvania over the last four years as drilling companies found they could use hydraulic fracturing to release gas that was long thought too expensive to extract from the shale. The Marcellus formation stretches from New York through Pennsylvania and Western Maryland to West Virginia and Ohio.

In the hydraulic fracturing process, drillers blast large volumes of water laced with chemicals underground, cracking the rock and releasing natural gas.

As the drilling has increased, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) has been urging Pennsylvania to stop “rubber stamping” drilling permits, and make sure that the companies protect nearby streams from polluted runoff. Last week, CBF won a preliminary battle in this arena, when the state last week revoked three erosion and sediment control permits for drilling that CBF had challenged because they had been approved without adequate review.

In addition, CBF has been pushing for larger penalties for environmental violations, so drilling companies will have an incentive to clean up their act.  Moreover, CBF wants Pennsylvania to impose a tax on drilling, so that some of the industry’s huge profits can be directed to protect the environment.

Secretary Hanger, in the interview, said it makes no sense that Pennsylvania lacks a drilling tax and he predicted that the state will impose one soon.

“I fully support a severance tax, or an extraction tax,” Hanger said. “I think it’s crazy that Pennsylvania doesn’t already have an extraction tax in place. I believe one is going to be put in place in 2010. Virtually every other state that has major drilling has a severance tax, and Pennsylvania ought to have one as well.”

Because of a budget crunch in Pennsylvania, the state environmental department is facing an 8 percent cut in total revenues next year.  About a third of the department’s $711 million annual budget comes from state revenues, which could be reduced by $58 million next year.

Despite the cuts, Pennsylvania has been increasing the number of inspectors and regulators of the  oil and gas industry, and paying for them through higher fees the state has imposed on drilling permits, Hanger said.

 “As opposed to having any reduction to oil and gas staff, we added 37 people in the spring of this year,” Hanger said.  “We now have over 120 people in that staff, and we expect to see more…inspecting wells, permitting, and overseeing that whole operation. And if needed, we will add more.”

Hanger suggested the enormous size of the natural gas reserves could change America’s energy dependency.

‘It’s a momentous change.  It makes natural gas a very viable substitute for petroleum to run vehicles with,” Hanger said. “ It makes natural gas a very viable substitute for coal or oil to make electricity.  It really is a complete game-changer in terms of the energy sources within Pennsylvania, and actually within the whole country.  The reserve is so large, that we could shut off all gas wells in the other 49 states and still run the country off the gas here for 10 or 15 years.”

He noted that burning natural gas produces less carbon dioxide and air pollution than coal and other fuels.

“The gas, once it’s in our cars and in our homes and at our power plants, is going to reduce emissions that cause tremendous environmental destruction,” Hanger said.  “Natural gas is much less carbon intensive. This could be a major answer to what we are going to do over the next 20 years before some zero carbon technologies are available on a mass scale. It could literally be a bridge to when I think that solar power could power the United States.”

But drilling hundreds of gas wells can also alter the natural landscape.  When I visited gas-rich areas of New Mexico and Colorado about five years ago, I saw how once-scenic vistas and forests had been transformed transformed into industrial zones.  The drilling companies typically clear-cut about five acres of trees around the well sites, which have tangles of pipes, rows of large tanks, and a parade of heavy trucks rumbling in and out.

National Public Radio this morning had a report on the aftermath of the gas drilling boom in Texas, which you can listen to by clicking here.

I saw the kind of industrialization that I witnessed in rural New Mexico starting to happen in rural northeastern Pennsylvania when I visited last week.  The scenic rolling hills and rocky forests of the largely agricultural area are increasingly interspersed with heavy machinery and clear-cut sections of woods.

At least nine families in the area had their drinking water contaminated with methane, according to the state environmental agency, and one drinking well exploded.

“There are real costs and benefits associated with drilling,” Hanger said.  “And it’s very important that that this industry be regulated and be watch-dogged, as this gas is produced.”

He said that fortunately no one was injured in the explosion.   “There is not perfection here.  There are going to be some impacts from drilling,” Hanger said. “And our focus is on minimizing those impacts up front, and where there are spills – or, in this instance, a serious event, that included an explosion, which thankfully didn’t harm anyone -- that remedies are taken.”

Hanger’s agency in September imposed a $56,560 fine on the Texas-based drilling company, Cabot Oil & Gas, that spilled fracking fluids into a stream and wetlands in the Dimock area, causing a fish kill. The state environmental department also forced the company to shut down its hydraulic fracturing for three weeks.

“We required them to stop fracking and to re-file their engineering plans and their spill prevention plans,” Hanger said.  “The company met with the department to go through their ability to frack appropriately.”

The environmental secretary said that such spills and gas leaks into drinking water are relatively unusual. But he added that such problems do sometimes happen with drilling, and that’s why increased oversight is needed.

“I’m glad to say that the drilling that goes on in Pennsylvania in most instances does not involve the kind of event that occurred in Susquehanna County (the Dimock area),” Hanger said. “But I’m not here to say that it can’t happen again or won’t happen again.”

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