A boom in natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania will ease energy demands and boost the state economy. But there's reason to be concerned that environmental regulators won't be able to keep up with this new gold rush.
Natural gas deposits trapped miles underground in bedrock called the Marcellus Shale in the northeastern United States could hold enough to supply the entire country for 15 years.
A relatively new drilling technique enables natural gas operators to extract the gas from the shale beds. Known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," the process pumps up to four million gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to break apart the rock and release the gas.
Fracking is used safely in most oil and gas operations, but it does contain risks, including well and stream pollution from the salty water that returns to the surface.
These concerns led New York's regulators to conduct an environmental-impact statement on Marcellus drilling, issuing an 800-page scientific analysis and calling for public comment.
New York's proposal lays out buffer zones for drilling near water supplies, requires drillers to disclose the chemical composition of their fracking fluids, and sets guidelines for fluid disposal.
Pennsylvania has no specific laws on Marcellus drilling, relying instead on updating older drilling rules. The Department of Environmental Protection has hired more inspectors and centralized the permit process. But a more comprehensive overhaul, with citizen input, is needed.
Drilling permits are flying out of DEP's doors. Through Sept. 30, 1,340 Marcellus permits were issued and 385 wells drilled - more than double the number from last year. And the just-completed state budget requires the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to raise $60 million by leasing up to 10,000 more acres of public forest land to drillers in the next year, a goal driven by a revenue grab rather than environmental stewardship.
Despite the drilling boom and accompanying environmental risks, Gov. Rendell unwisely backed off his own proposal to impose a severance tax on gas production. Senate Republicans oppose it, but it's a more sensible, long-term way to raise money for environmental protection than leasing state forest land.
Meanwhile, DEP took a significant budget cut this year - 27 percent. DEP Secretary John Hanger says federal aid and increased fees paid by drillers make up a larger share of DEP's budget, so the cuts will not affect oil and gas inspection and enforcement. Nevertheless, DEP is planning layoffs and cuts, not a comforting formula for enhanced environmental protection overall.
DEP last week revoked three permits for drilling sites in northern Pennsylvania after the Chesapeake Bay Foundation challenged them for containing technical flaws. CBF lawyer Matt Royer has accused DEP of creating a "fast-track, rubber-stamp permit review process." Is he right?
The state's deposits of natural gas hold great promise. But a more comprehensive environmental plan is needed to ensure this drilling is done right.