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Lawmakers Wrestle With Natural Gas Drilling Issues

Much still is unknown about how the growing natural gas industry will affect the environment and human health years down the road.

The implications of drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania will affect everyone who lives here for decades to come, regardless of whether residents live in an area that contains the gas or not.

That much was made clear Thursday during a public hearing on the state’s burgeoning natural gas industry. State Rep. Marguerite Quinn hosted the hearing at Doylestown’s .

It brought together leaders from the gas companies that stand to profit from the industry, environmental leaders urging stricter rules to protect the environment and human health, and county and township officials who face everything from increased traffic on unprepared roads to more calls to 911.

Listening were 12 lawmakers from around the state wrestling with regulatory questions that have fiercely divided industry supporters and opponents.

And time is ticking away; Quinn said Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to announce his preferred regulatory plan any day now.

"This is a very important issue for the commonwealth," said state Rep. Dave Reed, chairman of the House Majority Policy Committee. "We want to look back 20, 30, 40 years from now with pride, not regret; not like we do the coal industry."

The natural gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale rock deep beneath much of Pennsylvania has the potential to bring jobs to a state desperate to put its people to work.

But with about 100 bills proposed so far - including Quinn's HB 1700 - state lawmakers have reached no agreement yet on how to regulate the budding industry.

Whether to impose an extraction tax or a fee per well, who would collect the money, where the money would go and what it would be used for are just some of the policies they must decide. And that doesn't even touch on the biggest question of all: whether hydraulic gas drilling, or fracking, poses significant enough risks to the water we drink and the air we breathe that the practice should be banned altogether, or regulated much more stringently.

In testimony that stretched over four hours on Thursday, eight men shared their ideas on what the natural gas industry could do for - or to - Pennsylvania.

Tom Murphy, co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, estimated up to 30,000 direct jobs will be created in the next two years because of the Marcellus Shale gas industry.

"Although there are many aspects of economic impacts associated with Marcellus development, the increase in jobs being produced in Pennsylvania is undeniable," said Murphy, who also is a graduate of Central Bucks West.

Shale gas accounted for less than 4 percent of the country's natural gas three years ago, Murphy said; today, that share is 30 percent and climbing.

But environmentalists charge that that economic prosperity will come at too dear a cost. The state's regulations must do more to protect the environment and the purity of the air we breathe and the water we drink, they said.

"Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has a legacy of failure when it comes to natural resources extraction," said Andrew Heath, executive director of the Renew Growing Greener Coalition. "I fear we have not learned our lessons from what happened with the timber industry, the oil industry and especially the coal industry."

Heath pushed the legislators to assess an impact fee on the gas companies. Revenue from the fee could be used to offset negative consequences of the drilling industry, such as roads that crumble under the weight of its heavy equipment, and also to pay for environmental programs like Growing Greener.

David Masur, of PennEnvironment, went even further.

He pushed for a halt to natural gas drilling until the companies can prove they can do it safely. More scientific studies must be done to define the consequences of everything from the chemical cocktail that is injected into the ground to break up the rock to the taking of millions of gallons from the commonwealth's water supplies to use in the drilling.

"Deep well technology is fairly new," Masur said. "We just don’t know what will happen in 20 years."

Carl J. Carlson, director of government affairs for Range Resources, testified that the gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale "is a world-wide game changer." Estimates range from 80 trillion to 500 trillion cubic feet just from that type of rock alone, he said.

"For the nation, this enormous supply of natural gas offers the opportunity, for the first time in decades, to become much more energy independent, to reduce the 9 million barrels of oil that we import each day at a cost of nearly a billion dollars a day; and to displace much of the coal and oil we burn with a much cleaner, abundant and domestic natural gas."

In the past three years, nearly 4,000 Marcellus Shale wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania, Carlson said. Companies developing the shale must do so in a safe and environmentally protective manner, he said. He also urged the state to "establish public policy that encourages the safe development and use of this resource."

The impact on the environment isn't the only fallout from the natural gas industry.

Elam Herr, of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, and Doug Hill, of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, testified about the impacts on the local communities where drilling is taking place.

Roads used to transport gas industry equipment and supplies are crumbling, and calls for social services - from 911 calls for slip-and-fall accidents to domestic abuse complaints - are up in the host counties, they said.

As each witness testified, the state lawmakers on the panel followed up with questions and clarifications. Though they didn't take questions from the audience, one couple tried to shout out comments about health implications of cancer-causing chemicals used in the fracking process.

After the hearing, Quinn said she hoped she and her colleagues could soon tackle the issue and get a bill ready for a vote.

"I think it's imperative that we move forward quickly," she said.

Liz Rosenbaum September 30, 2011 at 02:15 PM
On October 21, the Delaware River Basin Commission will vote on whether to open the "Special Protection Waters"of the Upper Delaware to industrial shale gas drilling. This is a very important issue and Pennsylvanians (from all counties) need to learn more about it. Thanks for covering the local hearing.
Sarah Larson September 30, 2011 at 03:41 PM
The DRBC couldn't be at the hearing yesterday, so I was going to find out today when their vote on the Upper Delaware was going to be. Thanks for sharing the info.
Mary K. Bingler September 30, 2011 at 09:47 PM
There is a petition on SignOn.org to address the fact that a federal appeals court ruled this week that oil and gas companies can begin drilling and fracking in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. The ruling says that the government only controls the surface rights in the national forest, not the mineral rights under the surface. This could open up drilling and fracking in all national forests. There are two ways this can be stopped: 1) The Obama Justice Department must appeal this ruling and ask for an injunction to halt drilling; and 2) Congress must pass legislation to stop drilling in all National Forests. Attaching a link to the petition if you are interested in signing. It will be delivered to The United States House of Representatives, The United States Senate and President Barack Obama. Very interesting to read all the comments and concerns some are sharing with their signatures: http://signon.org/sign/stop%2Dfracking%2Din%2Dnational?source=mo&id=31555-5267996-%3DjH692x

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