While few people are questioning the enormous economic impact of developing the natural gas resources in the Marcellus Shale, the gas industry's potential impact on the environment is generating a lively debate.
That debate came to Lycoming College Tuesday during a public hearing by the state House Democratic Policy Committee.
The event, which mostly focused on environmental issues related to gas exploration, and to a lesser extent, the Chesapeake Bay, was co-chaired by state Reps. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport, and Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster.
Also sitting on the panel was state Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Lock Haven. Hanna said he supports a moratorium on leasing state land until the full impact of the gas industry is known.
A diverse group of speakers provided testimony regarding the Marcellus Shale during the near four-hour session.
Scott Perry, director of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, discussed the agency's role in regulating the industry and efforts it is taking to ensure gas development is done with minimal impact on the environment.
State Rep. Rick Mirabito, D-Williamsport looks on as state Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, asks a question during the state House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on environmental issues of the Marcellus Shale and the Chesapeake Bay on Tuesday at Lycoming College. Also participating were, above from left, Jon Bogle, co-founder of the Responsible Drilling Alliance; Terry Bossert, vice president of Government Affairs for Chief Oil and Gas; and state Rep. Michael K. Hanna Sr., D-Lock Haven.
Perry said that while other departments within the agency have reduced staff because of the state's budget problems, the oil and gas bureau has added personnel.
In spite of that, the agency - and the industry - face challenges on what to do with water-borne pollutants, such as Total Dissolved Solids or "TDS," generated by the industry.
Perry said TDS in gas industry wastewater has concentrations of salt many times that of sea water.
Technologies exist to removed dissolved solids from gas wastewater, he said. However, the capacity to treat expected wastewater volumes does not yet exist in the state, he said.
Perry said he favors imposing a severance tax on gas removed from the shale to provide funding to cover the cost of mitigating the impact of gas exploration on local communities and the environment.
Terry Bossert, vice president of government affairs for Texas-based Chief Oil and Gas, discussed his company's efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of shale development.
Those efforts include developing an inspection program for every well the company drills, Bossert said. The company also is using more stringent standards for its well casing - alternating layers of steel pipe and cement designed to prevent the migration of gas into ground water aquifers - proposed, but not yet adopted, by the DEP.
"We always case our wells the way we're going to under the new regulations," he said.
The industry's use of a single well pad to drill multiple wells reduces land disturbance, he said.
"It would be foolish to say we could develop the Marcellus Shale and not have any impact on the environment," Bossert said, adding that all human activity comes with some degree of environmental impact.
Bossert said the gas industry is well-regulated in Pennsylvania. His company deals with many agencies, including the DEP, Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Game Commission, Fish and Boat Commission and Army Corps of Engineers.
"We've even dealt with the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission," Bossert said.
The latter agency came into the picture when Chief was building a pipeline and came across an old abandoned still, he said.
The one thing the industry needs from regulatory agencies is "consistency from region to region and project to project."
Bossert said he does not oppose a severance tax, but believes it is the wrong time to do it while the industry is investing millions of dollars in the early stages of Marcellus Shale development.
Jon Bogle, co-founder of local industry watchdog group Responsible Drilling Alliance, said air pollution may be the industry's biggest health risk.
Bogle discussed a study by Dr. Al Armendariz, an environmental engineering professor at Southern Methodist University who now is an administrator with the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The study, which was contested by the gas industry, showed that gas industry operations caused more smog pollution than all motorized vehicles and airport operations in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Bogle said.
Bogle also cited air and noise pollution issues that arose in Dish, Texas, a town in the Barnett Shale region.
His testimony included a recent story published in the Dallas Morning News showing most Barnett Shale facilities such as wells, condensate tanks and compressor stations emitted toxic chemicals into the air.
Bogle said that while air pollution may be the biggest health risk, it also may be the easiest pollution to control because of readily available equipment.
Also speaking were Eric Conrad, of the North Central Workforce Investment Board, and Thomas Beaudy, deputy director of the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.
Beaudy discussed the industry's need for water for gas drilling operations. The commission must approve water use for any Marcellus Shale drilling operation in the river basin.
According to Beaudy, the industry currently is using less than 1 million gallons of water per day. At full production, about 28 million gallons of water will be used per day, he said.
Also discussed during the hearing was the possible development of an industry-generated fund that could be used to deal with long-term environmental impacts discovered after the industry has left the area.
According to Mirabito, the hearing was part of an effort to "explore issues so we can get the facts on the table and make informed decisions."
"We all need air, water and soil to survive," Mirabito said. "We also need energy. We all drove here and we all took showers with water (heated) by hot water heaters."