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Public meeting on Marcellus Shale reveals pluses, minuses

| Saturday, May 15, 2010

The benefits as well as the negative effects of obtaining natural gas from the Marcellus Shale reserve were discussed Friday during a public meeting held at Penn State Fayette, The Eberly Campus, hosted by state Rep. Deberah Kula.

"The Marcellus Shale has raised a lot of opportunities, but has also raised a lot of questions," said Kula, who was joined by state Rep. P. Michael Sturla, chairman of the House of Representatives majority policy committee.

The natural gas reserve that stretches under Pennsylvania and holds enough gas to fully supply the nation for 10 years or more, has attracted the gas industry to Western Pennsylvania.

"During the next few years, we plan to more than double our work force — adding more than 500 jobs here in Pennsylvania," said Jeffrey Kupfer, senior vice president of Atlas Energy Inc. He said that number doesn't include the thousands of contractors and other jobs that can be associated with the project.

Industry representatives say drilling could occur for the next few decades with a couple of thousand wells.

Testimony provided yesterday said hydraulic fracturing methods of extracting natural gas from under the surface could be a safe, environmentally friendly operation only if the state comes up with necessary regulations that are followed by industry.

John Waliser, vice president of Legal and Government Affairs with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council to the House Majority Policy Committee, testified that while the industry has actively pursued ways to reduce demand for fresh water withdrawals, these should not be seen as a solution for the broader withdrawal management concerns.

"Pennsylvania currently does not require any surface or groundwater monitoring for flow back and produced water impoundments," Waliser said, adding that the Commonwealth may want to look at other states that have taken steps to deal with frack, flow back and produced waters.

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been developing amendments to state code that includes updating material and design specification as well as performance testing.

Those amendments will be considered by the Environmental Quality Board on Monday.

Waliser testified that leakage of frack and flow back water has come from human error, equipment malfunction, poor siting of equipment and other operational causes and it's critical for the state to inspect and enforce regulations as well as industry to deploy best-management practices for day-to-day operations.

Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, testified the industry is working closely with the DEP to determine and impose best practices as they relate to hydraulic fracturing. She said Pennsylvania's regulations governing the use and management of water needed to drill are well among the most stringent in the nation as water withdrawals from streams and rivers must be approved along with information on locations, amounts, storage and treatment plans.

"The industry currently treats or recycles all of its flow back water," Klaber said. "Recycling accounts for approximately 60 percent of the water used to complete Marcellus Shale wells, with greater percentages predicted for the future."

Drilling's effect on surface water was also discussed.

Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State, testified that hydraulic fracturing at depth will not threaten the quality of surface water due to the interconnected fractures that are well mapped.

Engelder said there are two areas of concern regarding water quality. They include leaking retaining pits by overflow or line raptures and methane in ground water. He said both problems can be anticipated and mitigated.

"The question remains, do we as citizens of the state of Pennsylvania have the good will to seize the opportunity offered by the Marcellus and make this opportunity something that is in the best interest of everyone?" Engelder said. "I think the answer is yes."

Eric R. Conrad, P.G., president of E.R. Conrad and Associates LLC, a company that provides services for environmental planning and other conservation practices, agrees that the development of the Marcellus Shale can be good for the state and nation. But he doesn't think it should come at the expense of residents' quality of life.

"We need to set clear expectations with all parties," Conrad said, adding that proper regulation, adequate training of government employees to inspect the shale and legislation to address the need for impact fees, must be addressed.

Industry representatives and legislators wanted landowners who have choice drilling sites to be aware of possible land scams.

"Landowners need to be aware of their rights should they be approached to lease their land and it is equally important that residents understand any potential hazards to ground and surface water at and around drilling sites," Kula said.

"The Marcellus Shale drilling industry is fairly new in Pennsylvania and we need to be diligent in providing residents with information about any local licenses awarded as well as the opportunity to voice their concerns about drilling," Kula said.

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