Members of the Pennsylvania Forestry Association got up close and personal with local Marcellus Shale drilling sites this weekend at the group's 124th annual meeting, which featured a bus tour showing the pros and cons of drilling on forest land.
The bus tour left Saturday from the Genetti Hotel, traveling to drilling sites on both public and privately owned forest land.
PFA President Marc Lewis said the group will not take an official stand for or against the drilling, preferring to focus on informing its members, many of whom own private forest land across the state.
Tanks are lined up to receive flowback water as natural gas burns to clean out the pipe at the Seneca Resources drill site in Lycoming State Forest.
"Our main goal is just to educate the landowner of the pros and cons," he said.
The first stop on the bus tour was a Seneca Resources drill site in Lycoming State Forest. As the bus pulled up to the site, PFA members peered out the windows at a flare shooting skyward from a pipe. The site, which already is past the drilling stage, is now undergoing the post-frack flowback or "burnout" process, which Seneca Permitting Specialist Mike Klinger said typically continues for about a week. During this process, a separator is used to process the mixture of gas, oil and frac fluid to separate as much clean, dry natural gas as possible. The gas then is piped to a sales line or, in this case, a flare stack, while the oil is pumped to a storage tank for future sale and the water and sand are collected. Red tanks were lined up like soldiers, waiting to receive the flowback water, which Klinger said will be reused in future drilling projects.
"We recycle 100 percent of our water," he said.
Ben Hardy, energy forester with state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the practice of recycling flowback water has become common among gas companies, as it saves money.
The well visited by PFA members - the first of 10 planned wells in the forest - is 9,100 feet deep and about a mile long. The holding pond set up for the well has a capacity of 5.5 million gallons and the shale on site is about 80-100 feet thick. The highest production of shale - about 50 percent - will take place in the first two to three years on site, while the remaining 50 percent will be produced slowly, over 20 to 30 years. Seneca officials would not reveal the rate of gas being produced, saying the company would send out a news release in the coming weeks.
The next stop for PFA was the Trout Run Volunteer Fire Co., where Harvey Katz and Anne Harris Katz, research biologists and self-appointed "citizen watchdogs" for the gas industry, shared some of the possible negative impacts of drilling on forest ecology, wildlife and public health and safety. Harris Katz asked attendees to consider important questions about the gas industry, such as its potential effects on drinking water; tourism; the lumber industry; flood patterns; and the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay.
The couple was unable to provide any concrete facts, however, due to the rapid rate of change in gas industry technology.
"It's virtually impossible to predict," Harris Katz said in an interview after the presentation. She pointed out that Environmental Protection Agency is unsure at this point whether fracking is safe. The EPA is currently attempting to drum up support for a two-year study of the process and its safety risks.
Harris Katz said that she and her fellow biologists believe "it is wise to put a moratorium on fracking until the EPA finishes its study."
Once unbiased members of the scientific community have a chance to examine the study and make their own conclusions, she said, Pennsylvania can go from there.
Katz said members of the gas industry, environmental agencies and landowners all need to come together to find a safe method of extracting the shale. She added that those who choose not to lease their land but live next door to people who choose to lease are the most vulnerable to negative consequences from drilling.
"They have no protection at the moment," she said.
Because neighbors' wells can be affected by drilling nearby, landowners often need to pay to have their wells tested before the drilling begins next door; that way, if their water becomes contaminated, they will have proof that the contamination was caused by the drilling. Quality and quantity tests can cost hundreds of dollars or even thousands.
"You're talking about a significant chunk of change for someone who hasn't leased their land," she said.
Harris Katz said voters should consider the fact that a portion of the proposed severance tax on drilling could be used to defray the costs of water quality and quantity tests for those who need them.
The last visit of the day was a drill site on a 6,600-acre property owned by the Texas Block House Hunting and Fishing Club. David Aumen, consulting forester for the club, said the site already has been drilled and fracked by Anadarko Gas Co. Aumen said he has learned through the shale drilling process the importance of digging into all the details of the lease with the gas company.
"Get out there and ask questions," he said.
The club has a third-party consultant on board to help negotiate the terms of its leases with the gas company. Anadarko plans to drill nine more wells on the site.
Because the club did not want a holding pond to be set up on the property, the gas company instead transported 180 tanks on and off the site to transport the water from the well. Aumen added that, like Seneca, Anadarko recycles all of its used frack water.
Aumen was unable to provide any details on profits being made on the site.