Who watches over industry? In today's final piece of our series on the Marcellus Shale, WHYY's Susan Phillips reports on how regulators are struggling with policing the gas rush.
This week in our series The Shale Game, we've heard from dairy farmers and small business owners upstate who have reaped the economic benefits of Pennsylvania's natural gas boom. We've also heard from residents who worry about contamination of their water supplies. But who watches over industry? In today's final piece of our series on the Marcellus Shale, WHYY's Susan Phillips reports on how regulators are struggling with policing the gas rush.
Before the natural gas rush hit Pennsylvania, there was coal. Chuck Coccodrilli's grandfather was a coal miner who escaped the dangers of the mines by buying a dairy farm. In the 1970's Coccodrilli remembers doing early morning milk runs as a kid, but today, no one in his family is milking cows, it's just not worth it.
Coccodrilli: There's no crop anymore because there's hardly any dairy farms. They're dropping like flies especially over the past two years when milk prices collapsed.
So now, Coccodrilli has sold his mineral rights to the natural gas industry. But he's not blind to environmental risks. He'll talk at length about how acid rain has messed up the pH levels of his soil. Coccodrilli says natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel and calls it a "bridge fuel." That means he thinks it can help wean the country off foreign oil until America produces enough wind, solar and nuclear energy to power our homes and cars.
Coccodrilli: Although there is some negative to it I think the negative pales by comparison to what we're already living with and if the scientists are correct, to stave off and lower our carbon footprint its extremely important to do so.
Coccodrilli says with the right regulations in place, natural gas drilling could be safer and cleaner than both coal and oil. He also says the state's natural gas rush is a way for longtime landowners like him to keep property as open space, instead of selling to developers.
But not far from Coccodrilli's land in Cortez Pennsylvania, residents of Dimock are having clean water trucked in because drilling for natural gas contaminated their drinking water wells.
Victoria Switzer moved to Dimock from New York City to build her dream home, write children's books and make jewelry. She leased her mineral rights in 2006 -- about a year after the first Marcellus gas well was drilled in the state. At first, Switzer liked the $2,000 dollars a month she got in royalties. Then, she says, her water began to look like Alka Seltzer.
Switzer first had methane in her water. More recently, she's learned it also contains ethylene glycol, a chemical used by natural gas drillers...it's also commonly used as anti-freeze. Other chemicals used include benzene and toluene, both carcinogens. Switzer says the argument that natural gas would be a cleaner burning bridge fuel is a hoax.
Switzer: My response to that? If you don't have water on the other side of that bridge, a whole lot of other things go down.
And Switzer is not the only one left with a poisoned well. Parts of the Susquehanna River bubble with methane. The Monongahela River had three bottled water advisories in a year and a half -- partly as a result of gas drilling in the area. Methane has built up in homes, causing explosions. A natural gas well in Clearfield County recently exploded, sending gas and contaminated water 70 feet into the air. The Department of Environment Protection has had to respond to countless spills, including two that resulted in fish kills.
Local municipalities are struggling to keep up with increased social service and emergency management costs. And trucks are ripping up rural roads.
On the other hand, some say gas from the Marcellus Shale could become a big money export for the United States. And its brought jobs to residents and an economic revival for rural communities.
But caught between the desire to drill and environmental concerns -- are the regulators.
One of the problems with the rush to drill the Marcellus Shale is that overlapping regulatory bodies with limited resources police the industry.
The state's regulations are based on the Oil and Gas Act, passed back in 1983. Then there's the Delaware River Basin Commission, the Susquehanna Basin Commission and the state's Fish and Boat Commission. They all play an overlapping role.
Victoria Switzer says new wells in her area are getting drilled at a breakneck pace and state regulators can't keep up.
Switzer: So there's been two young men out here scrambling, trying to take care of five counties in this massive drilling effort and one was a water quality specialist and the other was oil and gas and they didn't have the man power, they're good guys.
The DEP says it would like to have more people overseeing gas drilling. But it points out that despite deep overall budget cuts, the agency has doubled its staff at the Bureau of Oil and Gas.
Oversight by federal agencies is almost nonexistent. In 2005, the natural gas industry got itself exempt from a long list of federal regulations including the Safe Drinking Water Act, parts of the Clean Air Act and the Superfund law.
So state and local regulators are playing catch-up by instituting new rules. But the question is will the rules be enforceable.
Jones: What I've learned as a freshman councilman here is when you don't want a law to work, you limit the number of inspectors, or you limit the number of resources applied to that regulatory process. Simply put do you have enough people to monitor this?
Collier: The question is should DRBC have inspectors? Or should the state have inspectors? How do we work that best? But we need more people out there no doubt about it.
Recently, Collier and the Commissioners did something that made everyone from upstate dairy farmers to big oil executives take notice. They banned drilling for natural gas in the basin until they could develop their own rules and regulations. Those rules would impact drillers ONLY in the Delaware River watershed.
Collier worries about surface spills contaminating the river. But she also worries about the cumulative effect that new access roads, and new drill sites will have on the forest that protects the drinking water for 15 million people, including those living downstream in Philadelphia.
Kathryn Klaybur heads up the industry group The Marcellus Shale Coalition. Klaybur says industry welcomes new regulations.
Klaybur: I hope this is a continually improving relationship between the gas industry and the public. This industry works side by side with homeowners and communities so there's understandably a relationship there that has to be built on trust. And my member companies are making big investments to establish that trust.
Since 2007, the industry has spent more than $5 million dollars lobbying elected officials in the state.
Recently state environmental regulators required the industry to make sure any water used in the drilling process complies with federal drinking water standards. Right now, the DEP is proposing new rules when it comes to well casings and well construction -- including the number of blowout preventers. They also want the industry to become more transparent on how much water is used and the volume of chemicals added to that water.
Chuck Coccodrilli says that until the country has enough wind and solar power, drilling for natural gas should continue.
Coccodrilli: This is the cleanest option we have until that time. If we do it well, if the companies case properly and we treat the flow back water effectively I think it can be done and it should be done, more importantly.
Several weeks from now, the state will consider implementing new regulations. The Delaware River Basin Commission expects to release its own proposed regulations soon. Those will be followed by public hearings, which should be contentious.