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State, Gas Drillers Discuss Water, Land Protection

June 16, 2008

By Rory Sweeney, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Jun. 14–HARRISBURG — Reacting to regulation violations and some activities by companies exploring for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, state environmental regulators on Friday held an unprecedented summit with gas drillers to define expectations for water and land protection.

The meeting came about a week after regulators took steps to rein in the burgeoning exploration industry and its increasing demand for water. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission warned drillers they needed water-withdrawal permits, and the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the partial shutdown of two drilling sites for not having such permits.

Citing Pennsylvania’s coal and oil past and current commitment to renewable energies, DEP Secretary Kathleen McGinty assured the state “likes energy” and is “not allergic” to the effort required to extract it, but cautioned that her department will expend as much energy to protect the environment and natural resources.

“This is not about sending a signal that we don’t want to be a partner,” she said. “It’s just about some good rules for the road.”

Experts have known about the Marcellus Shale layer, which runs from upstate New York into Virginia and touches northern Luzerne County, for decades. They believe it contains enough recoverable gas to supply America’s natural gas demand for two years. However, technology has only recently advanced enough to tap the shale, which lies as much as 8,000 feet below the surface.

J. Scott Roberts, DEP deputy secretary in the Office of Mineral Resources Management, announced additions to the agency’s usual drilling permit specifically for Marcellus Shale that include detailed estimates of water use.

Paul Swartz, the river basin commission’s executive director, said companies need to make timely applications and factor the permitting process into their drilling timelines. Two permits were approved at the commission’s meeting on Thursday, he said, but another 84 — about a year’s worth of work — still await approval. Though there is a water-use threshold for requiring a permit, he said any work in the Marcellus would exceed that threshold and require a permit.

Exploration in the Marcellus is unlike gas exploration elsewhere in the state because deposits are vastly deeper, mostly unproven and necessary infrastructure, such as pipelines and water-treatment facilities, does not exist.

As energy prices continue to rise, drilling in the deep shale has become more enticing. DEP issued a record number of permits in 2004, 2005 and 2006. The rise leveled off in 2007 with 7,241 permits. So far in 2008, 2,510 have been issued.

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