How can Pennsylvania balance energy independence with ecological conservation?
Two goals of government are at the center of a debate in the state of Pennsylvania: environmental stewardship and energy independence.
The state is situated directly over the center of a geological formation known as the Marcellus Shale, a massive pocket of natural gas that spans 54,000 square miles from southern New York to West Virginia, with a majority of the formation in Pennsylvania. With advances in drilling technology, energy companies have converged on the region to tap into this massive reserve of natural gas - and harnessing domestic energy resources like the Marcellus Shale have been viewed by some as a key in reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil.
However, many are concerned that tapping into the Marcellus Shale would have a major impact on the surrounding environment. First, the drilling process would take water from streams and lakes, then there is the threat of polluting local ecologies once the process is complete. Groups ranging from the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited (PCTU) - the state chapter of a national trout fishing lobbying group - to the Sierra Club – a national environmental activist organization - have taken issue with the drilling because of its potential impact on the environment.
As the debate plays out, both sides are attempting to strike a balance between protecting the land and making it profitable for the state and its residents.
Energy within our own borders
A mile beneath the Appalachian Mountain range sits a massive formation of rock with tight pores that contain natural gas, known as the Marcellus Shale. Geologists estimate that the rock formation - which lies under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia - contains 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, which is a primary fuel used to produce electricity, as well as heat homes.
The gas is mined by drilling deep wells into the shale and then employing a process known as hydrofracturing, or “fracking.” This involves mixing water with sand and chemicals and propelling downward, fracturing the rock and releasing the gas.
The obvious upside to this process is that it taps a natural energy resource in our own country. In 2006, when former President George W. Bush made his State of the Union speech, saying \“America is addicted to oil,” he charged the country not only with looking for alternative fuels in the interest of reducing our dependence on foreign oil, but also with tapping sources within our own borders. The Marcellus Shale is one such source.
Another positive of the drilling process is the impact it will have on local economies, through creation of jobs and generation of new tax revenue. John Hanger, acting secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said in a February press release that “Natural gas exploration, particularly in the Marcellus Shale, promises billions of dollars in investment and economic growth for the commonwealth.”
Additionally, as more oil companies begin to drill on the land, the state has found other ways to potentially profit. A bill introduced by House Majority Whip Bill DeWeese of Greene County (House Bill 10) would allow the state to factor the value of underground natural gas and oil into real estate taxes. This means that drilling companies that buy resource-rich properties in hopes of drilling there would have to pay extra taxes on the properties, which would be funneled right back into the state and local services. Timothy Allwein, an official with the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, told the Tribune-Review that 45 of the poorest school districts in the state would benefit from such a real estate tax.
Preventing ecological damage
By most accounts, drilling in the Marcellus Shale certainly stands to be a boon to the state economy. However, environmental experts worry that it will also have an impact - a negative one - on the surrounding ecology.
The first concern is the use of water in the fracking process. Drilling operation requires one to three million gallons of water for each fracking, and sometimes the rock must be fracked multiple times before the gas is fully released. This water would be taken from local resources - streams, rivers and lakes - and environmental groups worry that the removal of so much water will upset the ecology of the animals that drink from it and the fish that live in it. One concerned group, the PCTU, points out that the Marcellus Shale and its mining operations “coincide with the location of many of Pennsylvania’s wild trout streams.” They suggest that removal of that much water could adversely impact the trout population that thrives in the state.
Once the fracking process is complete, the water is contaminated by mixing with chemicals and coming into contact with the natural.. Between 20 and 40 percent remains underground, and the rest becomes wastewater, nolonger able to sustain life in its former environment. However, the wastewater, if treated, can be used in sewage plants for dilution purposes; it can be used for dust suppression on dirt roads and can be used by PennDOT in treating ice- and snow-covered roads.
While some take issue with the sizable portion of the contaminated water that would remain underground, experts insist this is not a concern. In an op-ed column for The Greater Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Robert Watson, a professor of natural gas engineering and environmental systems engineering at Penn State University, wrote “The subject formation [the Marcellus Shale] is nearly a mile below the surface and is separated from the surface by an equal distance of rock. The simple reality is that stimulation using this technique does not impact ground-water bearing zones.”
Nevertheless, the applications for the treated wastewater also have environmentalists very concerned. Bringing the contaminated water back to the surface and using it on roads, even if it has been treated, essentially re-introduces this contaminated water back into the environment. Whether through absorption into the ground through dirt roads or through runoff on paved roads, it still makes its way back into the water system from which it came.
For many groups, the question is not whether the drilling will take place over the Marcellus Shale, rather how much oversight is given to the process.A statement by the Sierra Club pointed out how new the process is and how much room there is for evaluation on its impact. “Natural gas is a transitional fuel as the U.S. transitions to a clean energy economy,” the statement said. “However, the Sierra Club is concerned about the environmental effects of drilling. Deep well drilling on such a large scale is a relatively new to Pennsylvania; the environmental effects have not been fully evaluated. DEP recently warned of problems associated with violations of environmental requirements.”
What do you think?
How can the state balance energy independence with ecological conservation? Do the tax and economic benefits outweigh the potential costs to the environment? Should the state place greater oversight on miners and treatment operations? What would be the best way to prevent a negative impact on our local streams and lakes? Can you think of a compromise that ensures Pennsylvania takes advantage of domestic energy production while not compromising the local environment? Join the discussion!
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