Pause the Pa. gas rush
The state must deal with environmental questions before it allows more drilling.
By Greg Vitali
Gov. Rendell plans to lease more state forest land for Marcellus Shale gas drilling, perhaps as early as this spring, to raise an additional $180 million for the 2010-11 budget. This would be in addition to the almost 700,000 acres of state forest land already available for drilling.
But no one knows what the environmental impact of the anticipated drilling will be. That’s why I have introduced legislation to impose a moratorium on further leasing until we know more.
One-and-a-half million acres of Pennsylvania forest land sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation. With the leasing of 32,000 acres last month, 692,000 acres of state forest land is now available for drilling. The remaining unleased public land is environmentally sensitive, containing old-growth forests, fragile ecosystems, and rare and endangered species.
The Marcellus Shale lies about a mile below roughly 60 percent of Pennsylvania, as well as parts of neighboring states. Embedded in it are vast quantities of natural gas, which can now be accessed by an advanced drilling technique known as hydrofracturing, or fracking. It involves pumping huge quantities of water mixed with chemicals into the ground to fracture the shale, releasing the trapped natural gas.
Fracking a single well typically requires millions of gallons of water. Several acres of land must be cleared for the drilling pad. Access roads, a water sediment basin, and other infrastructure are installed, and a high volume of truck traffic is required to transport drilling equipment and water to and from the site. All this activity has an impact on the forest as well as on water quality.
Right now, there are only a handful of Marcellus wells producing gas on Pennsylvania forest land. About another hundred wells are planned or being drilled. Five to six thousand more will be drilled in the next 15 years, according to conservative estimates.
No one knows what the cumulative environmental impact of this drilling will be. We need to stop leasing state forest land for the purpose until we can better assess the consequences.
The bill I’ve introduced would impose a five-year moratorium on further leasing of state forest land for gas drilling. It would also require the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to study the impact of drilling and provide an annual report on the subject to the governor and the General Assembly.
Our state forests and the quality of our drinking water are too important to compromise. Instead of attempting to balance this year’s state budget by leasing more forest land, Pennsylvania should impost a severance tax on gas drillers. Almost every other state that extracts natural gas imposes such a tax.