Slowing Down the Marcellus Information Orbiter


These two words have changed Pennsylvania. For most people paying attention to news in the Mid-Atlantic these days they evoke a host of other words and images. Natural gas. Water. Energy security. Bridge fuel. Pollution. Fracking and hydraulic fracturing. Flammable faucets. Gasland. Jobs. Truck traffic. Industry. Environment.

Tracking it all can be like riding an Orbiter ride (pictured at right). Up becomes down, moving keeps you in one place, and when you try to focus on something your vision is too blurred because it's all shifted.

I still remember the first time I heard about the Marcellus Shale formation and natural gas. Four years ago a friend of mine came over for dinner. He told me that his brothers were involved in new natural gas drilling. A bunch of companies were leasing farmland across Pennsylvania farmers and other large landowners seemed eager to make money from gas, he said. The process to get the gas required injecting water into wells at high pressure was environmentally sound. It all seemed pretty incredible and he was really excited.

Pennsylvania would see more financially stable farmers and rural landowners. Increased energy security would from clean-burning natural gas. It could help free us from the coal- and oil-dependent industries, from transportation that accelerates climate change, and bring us to a less carbon-intense economy. Maybe it would even provide a bridge to renewable energy.

At the center of this story in Pennsylvania were Penn State University and Range Resources. In December 2007, Range reported successfully horizontally drilling, hydraulically fracturing, and extracting natural gas from the the Marcellus Shale bed ~5,000 - 7,000 feet below the surface (watch this animation/ map at right). The five wells they reported on were in southwestern Pennsylvania. One month later, Penn State professor of geology Terry Engelder calculated the Marcellus Shale formation Range had successfully “fracked” held between 168 trillion and 516 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, gas that existing technology made accessible. The rest is history.

Today, the Marcellus Shale play is the biggest new economic game in Pennsylvania. Former governor Ed Rendell called it "the golden goose." Just a few years ago there were a handful of Marcellus wells. As of May 2011, there were over 4,500. All of this gas development has brought incredible changes to the state.

Each well is a roughly $4 million-dollar affair to drill and frack and employs a small fleet of people to set up. It brings some economic benefits to the hosting municipalities and, for some landowners, large sums of money. Hotel, restaurant, and bar owners in Williamsport and other towns have made a fortune. Rental property owners have made serious money renting houses, apartments, and townhouses. And of course there is all that gas people use to heat their homes, burn for their stoves, and industry and transportation uses for fuel. Former Governor Tom Ridge stated the position clearly on The Colbert Report: “Pennsylvania is sitting on top of something that I think could lead a renaissance in America with regard to energy.” It hasn't been called the Saudi Arabia of natural gas for no reason.

Yet this is not just a win. Pennsylvania is still the only state in the nation without an impact fee or severance tax on the industry despite overwhelming public opinion calling for one. Governor Corbett has proposed an impact fee but it has been received skeptically by Republican and Democratic legislators, environmental groups, and county officials.

Well blowouts and truck crashes have spilled tens of thousands of gallons of toxic "produced water" into streams, fields, and onto lawns. Methane has migrated into well water causing hundreds if not thousands of families to require water be provided for them in external water tanks often called “water buffaloes.” People are reporting new ailments. Open air pits of produced water and compressor stations release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) known to cause and exasperate lung conditions. The land impacts from well pads disrupt habitat. At an EPA air quality hearing last week, several people testified to that their lives have been ruined by the gas industry and that they are treated like occupants of a “third world nation.”

On one side the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry-sponsored group tends to paint the picture as rosy and a big win. On the other environmentalists and community health advocates say that Marcellus development is a disaster of unprecedented proportions unfolding across the state. As you know, we've been quite critical of Marcellus development on Sustainability Now (archive here). But what’s real and what’s spin? What’s scientifically valid and what’s not? Who’s pulling strings and who should be? How the game changer going to change even more with a possible rush into the Utica Shale?

Between public outrcy, job creation, environmental and public health fears, corporate influence, the blogosphere, and who knows how many stories that the Marcellus information spin is a rapidly accelerating Orbiter ride. It's disorienting. We hope our guest today will help us slow down the spin.

Dave Yoxtheimer is a geologist the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR). Yoxtheimer is a certified geologist who has worked on water projects across Pennsylvania for several years and today works on several MCOR projects, specifically those that deal with environmental impacts.His work has included developing better practices for water withdrawal, recycling, disposal, and treatment.

MCOR has been set up to provide education and research initiative on unconventional gas plays like the Marcellus formation. They are set up to “serve state agencies, elected and appointed officials, communities, landowners, industry, environmental groups and other stakeholders.” Their seminar series on Marcellus Shale have featured former DEP Secretary John Hanger, the prospect of developing the Utica Shale, a larger and deeper shale play in North America, and produced water treatment.

We will be asking Yoxtheimer about the current and future state of Pennsylvania’s human and non-human residents and Marcellus and Utica Shale.

The show airs today at 4 pm on The Lion 90.7. You can stream the show online. As always, feel free to call (814) 865-9577 to comment and ask a question. This week we will also have our email open so that you can send questions to sustainabilitynowradio@gmail.com
Update: You can listen to the show at this link.

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