Tuesday, October 4, 2011

PA Marcellus Drilling in 33 Counties: What Are Water Impacts?

The infant Pennsylvania shale gas industry of 2005 is six years later at least an eighteen-year old. 

Pennsylvania now has issued more than 8,000 Marcellus well permits.  

According to MarcellusGas.org, about 5,000 of the permitted Marcellus wells are in 6 counties-- Bradford, Tioga, Washington, Susquehanna, Greene, and Fayette, listing them 1 through 6.   Bradford has the most with close to 1800 permitted Marcellus wells.

While the permitting and drilling is concentrated in 6 counties, as many as 33 out of a total of 67 counties in Pennsylvania have had at least 1 Marcellus well drilled.

The industry is producing around 3.5 billion cubic feet per day or 6% of America's daily gas, that is indeed a lot of gas, the mighty Marcellus flexing its muscle.

What has been the impact on water as a result of this development?  Thanks to much tougher waste water disposal rules and innovations by the industry that include recycling of
water and treatment of drilling waste water that can turn drilling water into distilled water, gas drilling's impacts on water have been modest and are likely declining further. 

In fact, less drilling wastewater apparently is being discharged without full treatment to rivers and streams than prior to the first Marcellus well drilled in 2005.

The most serious water impacts have been to less than 100 water wells that have been contaminated with methane that migrated to them as a result of gas drilling mistakes.  Gas migration is the primary impact on water, and resolving this issue remains a major piece
of undone business.

But gas drilling has not contaminated any public water drinking system so the system of regulation has worked so far to protect the overwhelming majority of waters and drinking water customers in Pennsylvania.

There have been some spills and leaks that reached streams.  A few small fish kills did result, but the Dunkard Creek environmental disaster was caused by a coal mining discharge that created aquatic conditions favorable to an invasive algae.

In all cases the gas spills and leaks were addressed quickly. Damage done was limited and temporary, though not zero.

Gas drilling has done nothing like the damage caused by past oil  spills or leaks to the Delaware River, Yellowstone River, or in Michigan or the coal ash spill into the Delaware

Raw sewage spilling into streams, mining discharges that decimate thousands of miles of water, nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment running off agricultural and urban lands, antibiotics in water, septic systems malfunctioning, and other daily assaults on our water quality create significantly more damage than drilling does. But they draw mainly yawns, while the near frenzied focus on drilling diverts nearly all attention.

With gas drilling water issues being better managed, attention should focus on the main threats to water and appropriately turn to air impacts from gas drilling to make sure that gas remains a solution to Pennsylvania's problems with smog, soot, and mercury in the air. The gas drilling air issues are not resolved. A focal point now becomes the EPA proposed July 28th air rules for gas drilling.

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