Marcellus Shale forum draws large crowd

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Sewickley Herald staff writer Kristina Serafini covers a Marcellus Shale forum, where PEC VP John Walliser served as moderator.
April 21, 2011

More than 100 people filed into the Big Sewickley Creek Volunteer Fire Department fire hall last Thursday as a six-person panel of environmentalists and legal representatives discussed Marcellus shale and the spike in the number of permits issued and drilling sites over the last several years in Pennsylvania.

Alan Eichler, manager of the Oil and Gas Program for the Southwest Region of the Department of Environmental Protection, said in 2005 only five permits were issued, but in 2010, that figure jumped to 3,314, with more than 1,000 actual drillings.

At the time of the meeting last week there have already been 590 permits issued and 300 drillings in 2011.

"Whether you like it or not, it could very well be that Pennsylvania is now back on the map in terms of energy production," he said.

In addition to health and safety issues, Eichler also addressed environmental concerns, like the amount of water the Marcellus shale extraction process uses.

Drilling, he said, uses about 100,000 gallons of water, while fracking uses up to 6 million gallons, which forced the Commonwealth to institute a water management plan that states anyone fracking a Marcellus well must submit a plan detailing where they are getting the water from, how much is being used on a daily basis and the rate they are pumping.

Measures, he said, are being taken to ensure waterways and aquatic life are not going to be impacted.

He also talked about companies recycling frac water to decrease the amount of fresh water being used.

"We in southwestern Pennsylvania are blessed with a lot of water," he said.

"There probably is enough water to support this long as they pump from large streams."

Eichler was met with groans of disbelief from audience members when he said companies have been fracking wells in Pennsylvania for 60 years and he has not heard of one case of groundwater contamination.

"I don't know of one case, not one case, where we documented that pumping frac water underground gets up into freshwater," he said.

John Walliser, vice president of legal and government affairs for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, as well as a Bell Acres resident and the event moderator, made it a point to let attendees know the meeting was informational only, not a forum for debate.

Walliser said Marcellus shale drilling is widely dispersed in Pennsylvania, though southwestern and northeastern parts of the state have seen the bulk of recent activity.

He added Marcellus shale is not the only shale deposit of natural gas as there are layers above and below.

"Eventually those are going to become economical to drill as well, so this really is a multigenerational event for Pennsylvania, similar to what we've seen with other resource extraction in the past. It's important that we get this right from the get go," Walliser said.

Others speaking at the meeting included John Smith and Tom Butz, legal representatives from Smith Butz, LLC, discussing what residents should know if they are approached by a drilling company; Bob Fargo, president and senior consultant for Geo Resource Group of Washington, Pa.; and Veronica Coptis, a community organizer for the Mountain Watershed Association, who encouraged people to become watchdogs where Marcellus shale drilling is concerned