Gas drilling’s impact on environment being watched

Gas drilling’s impact on environment being watched

The Allegheny National Forest along the northwestern border of Pennsylvania is home to about 8,000 oil and gas wells, each of which sits on a third of an acre of leveled land and is serviced by a 1,250-mile network of gravel roads through the trees.

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The impact of those wells has not gone unnoticed by those who monitor and enjoy the forest and those whose livelihoods depend on people visiting it.

In a recently revised plan for the forest, the state Forest Service noted the extensive oil and gas drilling there threatens to displace visitors who will look to “other State or National Forests where remote, semi-primitive settings and experiences are more readily available.”

The fate of the Allegheny Forest, which has been splintered by conventional drilling, is on the minds of residents and environmental groups as a new, unconventional natural gas rush is sweeping into forests and farmland in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

On April 1, the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources reversed a five-year moratorium on new shallow gas wells in state forests and opened 75,000 new acres to deep-well drilling.

The change was motivated by a desire to access the natural gas trapped deep in the Marcellus Shale that, if tapped, could add trillions of cubic feet of natural gas to the nation’s reserves.

DCNR defended its move by saying deep wells are spaced farther apart than shallow wells so they have less of an impact on the surface. The department’s parameters allow two deep wells per square mile, compared to the 16 per square mile generally allowed with shallow wells, like those in the Allegheny National Forest.

But environmental groups argue that the deep wells’ larger well pads disturb up to five acres of forest and each new road cut into previously untouched forest increases erosion and the risk of introducing invasive species.

“These well pads for the deep gas wells are going to be enormous,” said Ryan Talbott, forest watch coordinator for the Allegheny Defense Project, an environmental group. “Those trees are going to be clear-cut, and nothing is going to grow on that site for decades if not much longer.”

As landowners — including state and local governments — plan how best to cash in on the newly accessible gas trapped in the Marcellus Shale, the disturbance on the surface is often described as a temporary or merely aesthetic scar.

Earle Robbins, the director of the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Tioga County, described a photograph of a well in the middle of a cornfield.

“If you aren’t really looking for them, you don’t even know they’re there,” he said.

Although drilling in the Marcellus Shale is too new to measure its long-term environmental impacts, drilling in other, similar shales offer hints of what the process of deep-well drilling might mean for the local landscape and the people and animals that live in it.

n In Texas, hydraulic fracturing — the process of cracking the shale with water, sand and chemicals in order to release the gas — has brought to the surface naturally occurring radioactive material, which, when concentrated, can pose a risk to workers on the drilling rigs.

n Texas cities are struggling with how best to get rid of the salty wastewater produced during and after the “fracing” process. Gas companies prefer to dispose of the water underground in injection wells, but on several occasions the wells have leaked.

n And in Arkansas, state environmental regulators have begun pushing for tighter drilling laws after they found the pits on several drilling sites — which are meant to hold mud, water and drill cuttings — had been used to dispose of oil and trash. The pits were often not lined with plastic to protect the wastewater from leaking into the ground.

In Pennsylvania, wastewater must be taken to a treatment facility approved by the Department of Environmental Protection. Currently, there are injection wells in western Pennsylvania, but none in the northeast.

When asked how DEP, which regulates the environmental impact of drilling, plans to

deal with any radioactive material produced by Marcellus Shale drilling, Ronald Gilius, the director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management, said he is “talking with our radiation protection division and coordinating the answer to that question.”

Terry Engelder, a geosciences professor at Penn State University and an expert on the Marcellus Shale, said the shale is relatively more radioactive than other geological formations, but the radioactive isotopes it produces are not much different than those people are exposed to in the sea or from the sun.

“This type of radioactivity is incredibly common, but it’s in such low concentrations that it does not bother anyone,” he said.

To extract the gas from the Marcellus Shale, companies must make small cracks in the tight rock formation that holds it. The hole drilled into the shale is only about a foot wide, but two to five acres have to be cleared to hold the drill rig; the pit for water, mud and drill clippings; and the dozens of tanker trucks used to bring water to the site.

In some leases, landowners agree to let drilling companies use their ponds or wells to draw fracing water. DEP regulates where companies can draw water from public sources.

“They just can’t go onto a headwater stream and dry up all the stream,” Gilius said.

One million gallons of water, sand and chemical additives are forced under high pressure into the bore hole to fracture the shale. After the water is extracted, the sand stays in the shale to prop open the new seams.

Once the well begins to draw the gas seeping out of the fractures, companies build pipelines to transport the gas to interstate transmission lines. They build tanks to capture salty water and other by-products, which have to be trucked off site to treatment facilities or disposal wells.

By state law, the sites have to be revegetated and regraded after the drilling is done.

At a recent workshop for landowners presented by the Penn State Cooperative Extension, Lycoming County educator Tom Murphy said companies would first begin this extraction process at a few, far-flung wells, then they would come back to put in many more.

“The idea is they’re going to try to maximize how many they have out there,” he said.

According to DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun, the department expects the distance between Marcellus Shale wells “will be much greater than every 1,000 feet,” but there is not yet a firm definition of how far apart the wells must be.

Environmentalists note the disturbance of the land caused by each proliferating well invites erosion, which can damage streams and wildlife.

Since 2005, oil and gas companies have not had to acquire federal water pollution control permits for the construction phase of drilling, but DEP mandates erosion controls for well projects.

According to Debbie Doss, chairman of the Arkansas Conservation Partnership, the risk of sedimentation from well sites is real. Last summer in Arkansas, where thousands of deep wells have been drilled to pull natural gas from the Fayetteville Shale, environmental regulators began to draw stricter laws after silt from drilling sites washed into nearby streams.

“People don’t realize what a serious environmental problem that is,” she said. “It basically smothers all the invertebrates in the stream, it kills fish.”

“There’s so much activity going on,” she added, “that the state just can’t keep up with all of it.”

In Pennsylvania, Gilius, said “erosion and sedimentation control is a primary concern” of DEP.

The natural gas companies, many new to the state, have kept the department’s 34 field inspectors busy: On the 34 new wells inspected since 2005 in Lycoming, Tioga, Susquehanna and Wayne counties, there have been 22 citations for companies with no erosion and sedimentation plans, inadequate plans, or plans that are not being implemented.

There were two citations for companies that discharged “industrial wastewater” straight to the ground and six for wastewater pits on the well sites that were impermeable or “not structurally sound.”

Barbara Arrindell, a member of a grassroots group based in Damascus that opposes natural gas drilling, said after-the-fact citations don’t protect residents from the environmental effects of violations.

“It’s already been done,” she said. “There’s no way to prevent that kind of thing from happening. You’ve got one chance at this.”

Joe Lambert, mayor of Decatur, Texas, a small city above a shale formation where gas exploration is booming, described the trade-off he has experienced between “the good and the ugly.”

In his city, it has meant a dramatically changed landscape.

“In the rural areas, they’re just dotted — pockmarked — with oil tank batteries,” he said, referring to the holding tanks for gas by-products that remain long after the drilling rigs are gone.

When told about gas exploration in Northeastern Pennsylvania, he said, “Jeez, you know, it can destroy your countryside when you’ve got beautiful trees and things like that.”

“There’s a lot of people absolutely becoming millionaires off this deal,” he added. “If you’re not one of them, you say, what are we doing here, because you’re screwing up your environment. You’re screwing up your natural beauty.”

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