Pennsylvania vies for being No. 2 U.S. gas producer
The Marcellus shale drilling boom is living up to its supporters' optimistic assessments and is rearranging the national landscape, putting Pennsylvania in competition with Alaska and Louisiana to be the country's second-biggest gas producer in 2013.
Pennsylvania has shot from seventh in 2011, according to state and federal data, and clearly trails only Texas.
“Forget about natural gas being a bridge fuel,” said Kent Moors, scholar in residence at Duquesne University's Institute for Energy and the Environment. “Natural gas is a major component of the national energy balance going forward — no end in sight.”
The shale boom has buoyed Pittsburgh's energy sector, steadily rising to 46,644 employees in 2012, up a more than a third since 2005, according an assessment of federal data released Friday by Pittsburgh Today, a research affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh.
Pennsylvania drillers produced 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas from the shale in the first half of 2013, according to semiannual production data the Department of Environmental Protection released Friday. That's the most since the state started reporting data in six-month intervals in 2010, and it's up 58 percent from the same period a year ago.
State officials are still updating numbers and they could change some by early next week, said Eric Shirk, spokesman for the Governor's Office. That didn't stop energy mavens in Pennsylvania from cheering the news.
Former DEP Secretary John Hanger on his blog called it stunning to see the state skyrocket up the national production list. Officials at the Marcellus Shale Coalition industry group called it “jaw-dropping” and “staggering.”
“What we're seeing is validation of some of the rosier predictions for the Marcellus,” said John Quigley, an energy consultant who served with Hanger in former Gov. Ed Rendell's administration. “If we are smart, we will use this bonanza of natural gas to turn off coal.”
The federal government has been trying to encourage more of that in an effort to reduce pollution and climate change. Free-market buyers have too because the price of natural gas has dropped to become competitive with coal. But the market alone won't move fast enough to help climate change, and the government could do more to quicken the push from coal and oil to natural gas, Quigley said.
Converting public buses, and government and commercial fleets would be one way to help, said Jim Roddey, co-chair of the Shale Gas Roundtable, a group of political, environmental and industry leaders that met under the umbrella of Pitt since 2011. It released recommendations this week that said government should try push increased gas use by finding ways to consolidate paths for pipelines, which could both make pipelines cheaper to build and less harmful to the environment.
Only 57 percent of drilled wells were actually producing as of December, according to the report. The lack of pipeline connections had hampered production by keeping those wells shut in, experts said. It's likely to slow Pennsylvania's production again this summer and fall until November, when more new pipelines are finished and more people start using gas for winter heating, said Diana Oswald, a production analyst at Colorado-based Bentek Energy.
The production growth that had occurred this year should sound an alarm for state regulators in the meantime, Roddey said. The agency has no way of telling right now if it has enough inspectors to regulate the industry, and it needs to assess itself to make sure it's ready when more pipelines and more wells come on line in the near future, Roddey said his group found.
“That means there's going to be a tremendous amount of work needed,” he said. “If we are to maintain a policy of protecting the environment, we really need to have a vigorous program of inspections, approvals and regulations.”
The DEP said Friday it's making progress, at least on its efforts to more efficiently vet permit requests. The agency cleared 66 percent of its backlogged permit applications — more than 6,000 in all — since July 2012. Many of the permits still pending have problems beyond the agency's control, it said in a news release. Most of that improvement came from outside the oil and gas program, which saw a 4 percent increase in efficiency, compared to 31 percent in water and 44 percent in mining, the state said.
“The DEP team has been outstanding,” Acting Secretary Chris Abruzzo said in the release. “We've proven that when provided technically complete permit applications, we can accomplish our core mission of protecting the environment and still meet acceptable permit review timeframes.”
Timothy Puko is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7991 or firstname.lastname@example.org.