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How hot a topic is natural-gas drilling? Consider a May 28 town meeting about the big Marcellus Shale gas deposit, held at the Elrama Fire Hall, in Washington County. In a Mon Valley town of 300 people, turnout numbered roughly 200.

"I was expecting maybe 50 people," says environmental activist Lisa Graves-Marcucci.

State Rep. David Levdansky, who called the meeting, says it was "the most well-attended town meeting I've had in 25 years" in office. Levdansky (D-Elizabeth) ascribed the turnout to concerns about the natural-gas industry's growing presence -- residents' uncertainty both about the legal aspects of leasing their land and about drilling's environmental impact. Many attendees were from Washington County, where drillers are already active. But others came from nearby Elizabeth and Forward townships, where industry representatives have been urging property-owners to sign leases allowing drilling on their land.

Many left the three-hour meeting dissatisfied.

"Each meeting I attend ... it becomes more underscored the state is ill-prepared for this type of drilling," says Graves-Marcucci, a Jefferson Hills resident and state coordinator for the nonprofit Environmental Integrity Project. Critics contend that drilling contaminates ground and surface water, and is too lightly regulated. (See CP's "There Will Be Crud," April 22.)

Two representatives of Range Resources, a Texas-based drilling company active in the region, also sat in. But the key talk was by Jon B. Laughner, head of the Beaver County office of Penn State's Cooperative Extension Service educational network.

Laughner addressed the challenges surrounding an anticipated gas-industry influx, but his PowerPoint display emphasized potential economic benefits of the Marcellus "play," a vast region of deep deposits underlying most of Pennsylvania. He enthused about production in a smaller field down south. "Look at this!" he exhorted the crowd. "Eleven billion [dollars] in output, a 30 percent increase [over 2007] ... That's been very successful for Texas.

"We've got a lot of good companies in Pennsylvania that want to do the right thing," Laughner added. "They want to be good neighbors."

Laughner also noted that when drilling operations come to town, increased truck traffic and street crime follow. But when he arrived at slides headlined "Environmental Impacts," Laughner said, "We're going to skip over this quickly."

Attendees who'd come for just such information objected. Some held news clippings about a Louisiana drilling site where 18 cows reportedly died after a chemical release. "Can we talk about the dead cows and what it's doing to your property, instead of [about] creating jobs?" asked a young woman. Indeed, one attendee, Washington County farmer Terry Greenwood, claims that gas drilling contaminated his spring -- and was followed by the still-births of 10 calves.

Laughner said he'd revisit the slides later in his talk, but never did, saying that environmental impacts weren't his field. He added that while "not everything has been perfect" with the drilling, "we're satisfied" with the industry's environmental record.

Laughner was followed by Allan Ichler, of the state Department of Environmental Protection's Oil & Gas Bureau, who did discuss environmental impacts in more detail. Ichler said that statewide, only a handful of complaints had convinced regulators to force drilling companies to replace damaged water supplies.

Still, Laughner's talk fueled suspicion that regulators and other officials are complicit with the multibillion-dollar industry. While the Extension is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state and county governments, it often seeks to promote economic development. One man later told Laughner, "You sounded very much like a company man."

Copies of the "skipped-over" slides, which Laughner later mailed to City Paper, included one listing toxins like arsenic and cadmium as components of the wastewater left over from the deep-drilling process. Pennsylvania has only a handful of facilities equipped to handle the briny wastewater from drilling operations.

More state oversight of drilling would be costly, Levdansky told attendees -- and tougher rules would need approval from Republicans, who control the state Senate and who are traditionally industry allies. "The oil and gas industry basically has veto power," he told the crowd.

Levdansky backs Gov. Rendell's call for a 5 percent "severance tax" on Marcellus gas -- the kind levied by all other large gas-producing states. He also favors dedicating some of that revenue to conservation purposes.

But Graves-Marcucci argues that a severance tax doesn't protect the environment. "Why don't we have a moratorium [on drilling] until we get the protections in place first?" she asked at the May 28 meeting, to general applause.

"People say 'gas,'" Greenwood, the Washington County farmer, said after the meeting. "I say, 'Water's more important than gas.'"

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