Thursday, July 09, 2009

As Pa. plans to regulate gas-well salt discharges, industry fights federal law on hydraulic fracturing

Last fall, the drinking-water source for more than 300,000 people was contaminated with high levels of salt as a result of discharges from natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Now, the state Department of Environmental Protection is seeking regulations on salt discharges from the practice, Rebecca Renner reports for Environmental Science & Technology.

More than 500 deep natural-gas wells have been permitted in the state so far, as part of the rapid development of the Marcellus Shale, which lies about a mile underneath Pennsylvania and parts of New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Penn State geologist Terry Engelder estimates it is the third-largest natural-gas field in the world. Its development has been made possible by advances in high-pressure, chemically enhanced hydraulic fracturing of the shale, which can release compounds like metal and sulfides that were trapped, along with chemical byproducts. Wastewter can be treated, but certain elements such as salt dissolve so quickly and easily in water that removing them is difficult and time-consuming.

Jeanne VanBriesen, a water engineer at Carnegie Mellon University, told Renner more information is needed before tapping into Pennsylvania’s natural-gas supply can be called safe: “It’s likely that drilling is the source [of high compound levels], because the Marcellus Shale is a marine formation with high chloride and bromide, and bromide is low in abandoned-mine drainage. But we need to do the research.” (Read more)

Current information on the environmental effect of hydraulic fracturing is fragmented, and oil and gas companies appear to be using old, untimely reports to fight a proposed federal law regulating it. Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica writes that one industry report claimed state regulations for drilling and fracturing "are adequately designed to directly protect water," but then revealed that only four states require regulatory approval before hydraulic fracturing begins. The author of the report also said encasing wells in cement is critical to protecting water, but regulations on that practice also vary from state to state.

The misleading information has some environmentalists, like Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, questioning the industry's credibility. Oil and gas companies say compliance with new regulations could cost $10 billion, and lose the federal government as much $1.2 billion in revenue at the same time. "We don't think the system is broke, so we question the value of trying to fix it with a federal solution," Richard Ranger, a senior policy analyst at the American Petroleum Institute, told ProPublica in May. "So proceed with caution if you are going to proceed with regulating this business because it could make a very significant difference in delivering a fuel that is fundamental to economic health." (Read more)

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