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Critics: Marcellus shale recommendations too lenient, narrow

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By Timothy Puko
Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Gov. Tom Corbett's advisers should have made tougher and more detailed recommendations about shale gas drilling, especially to protect air quality and to study the industry's cumulative environmental impact, several environmental groups said on Monday.

"The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission has ignored the serious air pollution problems associated with Marcellus-related development," the state director of the Sierra Club, Jeff Schmidt, said in a statement preceding a news conference in Harrisburg.

"We must require the best available pollution controls at all of these facilities in order to protect public health."

Industry and Corbett officials defended the commission's 96 recommendations, released on Friday. They said many of the issues the environmentalists raised air quality protections, pipeline regulation and water well testing are already being addressed by state regulators or were, in fact, addressed in the report.

Of 43 recommendations made on health, safety and environmental protection, none focuses on air quality protections. The industry's sites are small, so they don't require permits that would ensure companies are using the cleanest technology.

But with thousands popping up statewide, their nitrogen oxide emissions could cause major ozone pollution problems, said Jim Thompson, manager of Allegheny County's Air Quality Program.

The state will be forced to address that possibility and study how to reduce air pollution from the drilling industry when federal ozone restrictions tighten in coming weeks, Thompson said. The state Department of Environmental Protection has started some long-term studies on air quality and is considering new regulations on compressor stations.

The commission was aware of those issues, said member Patrick Henderson, the governor's energy executive. Besides, he added, members felt that pushing incentives for more cars fueled by natural gas would help improve air quality by lowering vehicle emissions.

"We tried to be cognizant of what is actually already occurring and is actually under review," Henderson said. "I think (critics) were looking for areas to find disagreement."

The environmental groups Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, PennEnvironment, Gas Truth of Central PA and Berks Gas Truth received some support from Cornell University professor of ecology and environmental biology Robert W. Howarth.

Howarth said the commission should have called for more studies to gauge the wide-ranging effects of the gas drilling industry and pushed setbacks from water supplies to more than 6,000 feet not 500 feet to protect them from methane contamination.

That would have been unrealistic, Henderson said. Howarth whose own research on air pollution from gas drilling has been widely criticized by the industry cited a Duke University study to reach his conclusions.

But commission members downplayed that study, Henderson said, because DEP Secretary Michael Krancer has questioned the legitimacy of its data, noting its researchers oppose the use of natural gas.

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