Pa.: Partial shutdown ordered of gas drilling

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By MARTHA RAFFAELE 05.30.08, 5:10 PM ET
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Pennsylvania environmental officials ordered a partial shutdown Friday of natural gas drilling operations by two companies in the state's northcentral region, saying they lacked permits for collecting water from nearby streams to be used in the drilling.

Neither Range Resources-Appalachia nor Chief Oil & Gas took steps to ensure the streams would be protected from pollution or other harm before conducting exploratory drilling at two sites in Lycoming County, said Robert Yowell, director of the Department of Environmental Protection's northcentral regional office.

"We need to ensure that bodies of water involved ... are protected for the residents of Lycoming County and the entire Susquehanna (River) watershed," Yowell said in a statement.

The two companies are exploring for gas below the Marcellus Shale, a layer of rock about 6,000 feet down that extends from western New York, across Pennsylvania and into eastern Ohio and parts of West Virginia.

As part of their work, they have been diverting tens of thousands of gallons of water daily from streams into storage areas, Yowell said. That water is used in a drilling process where fissures are blasted into the rock formation with pressurized water and sand to release trapped gas into a well.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission also issued cease-and-desist orders against the companies Friday for collecting stream water without the commission's approval.

Both companies said they planned to meet with the DEP and the commission next week to discuss how to resolve the dispute.

"We realize that this type of natural gas drilling is new to the Commonwealth and we will continue to work with all the regulatory agencies and the local authorities to find the balance needed to develop the natural resources underground," Kristi Gittins, spokeswoman for Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas, said in a statement.

Range Resources-Appalachia officials believed they did not need a permit to withdraw water from Big Sandy Run Creek in Cogan House Township, said Rodney Lawler, a spokesman for Fort Worth, Texas-based parent company Range Resources. The company is continuing its operations using an alternative water source, Lawler said.

"Lycoming County is an area in which very little drilling has been historically done," Lawler said. "We're all working to clearly understand what are the rules in different jurisdictions."

A spokeswoman for Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment Friday.

The DEP is closely monitoring gas companies' compliance with environmental regulations as interest in natural gas drilling has grown in Pennsylvania, agency spokesman Neil Weaver said. The department issued more than 7,200 gas drilling permits last year, and more than 2,500 have been issued so far this year, he said.

"We have very specific and very strict guidelines as far as environmental integrity and water resources, and we are not willing to bend on those for anyone," Weaver said. "That being said, this is something that's new. ... We're hoping this is not an issue, that (the companies) understand what can and cannot be done."

The orders will be lifted after both companies have secured the necessary permit and the DEP has approved water management plans for them, Weaver said.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed

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