2011-05-12 / Local & State

Group Wants Stronger Limits On Gas Drilling

By Marc Levy
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Policymakers in Pennsylvania should immediately strengthen rules that make areas around sensitive ecosystems, water sources and places where people live or work off limits to natural gas drilling, an environmental group said Thursday.

The message comes as drilling intensifies in the hotly pursued Marcellus Shale formation, the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir, and state officials consider adding extra safety precautions around drilling sites.

PennEnvironment noted that little formal scientific study has been completed to document the potential health hazards of water or air pollution from gas drilling sites where high-volume hydraulic fracturing is conducted. Industry advocates contend their work is environmentally responsible and heavily regulated.

But PennEnvironment said permitted Marcellus Shale sites are within two miles of numerous day cares, schools and hospitals in Pennsylvania. It also said that there are hundreds of instances of environmental violations flagged by state regulators at Marcellus Shale drilling sites within two miles of schools or day cares.

Current Pennsylvania law provides for a buffer of 200 feet between a drilling site and buildings and private water wells, as well as a 100- foot buffer around many waterways and wetlands. PennEnvironment’s Erika Staaf said her organization ideally would like to see mile-wide buffers as protection from potential drilling-related air or water contamination, although it is unlikely that the state Legislature would approve that.

“We have to step back and say, ‘What is the right distance and what are we able to see move through the Legislature?’” Staaf said. “But what we know right now is the distance (allowed in current law) is too close, and it needs to be farther away.”

A spokesman for a leading Marcellus Shale exploration company, Range Resources Corp. of Fort Worth, Texas, said hospitals and schools in Pennsylvania, if not in other states, have signed leases that allow drilling nearby, and that pollution from a drilling site is no more dangerous than that from a construction site.

“ By ( PennEnvironment’s) definition then, you shouldn’t have any construction within two miles of a school,” Range Resources spokes-man Matt Pitzarella said.

Pitzarella said the buffers are valuable as a way protect neighbors against the nuisance and inconvenience of drilling a well, and Range supports a 500-foot buffer between a well and any school or occupied residential or business structure, unless the owner permits it to be closer.

The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania, however, is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the past three years and many thousands more planned in the coming years as thick shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful and profitable source of natural gas.

At least a half-dozen bills awaiting action in the GOPcontrolled Legislature would increase some or all of those buffers. Many of the bills would maintain exceptions that are in current law.

For instance, a company would be able to get permission to drill within a buffer if, for instance, it secured an owner’s permission or took extra precautions that satisfy state regulators.

Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Chairwoman Mary Jo White, R-Venango, wants to wait to hear what Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission reports before considering at least three bills in her committee, a spokesman said. The commission is due to report in July.

One of the Senate bills, introduced by Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming, would increase the existing buffer around water wells and buildings to 500 feet. It would leave intact the 100- foot buffer around waterways and wetlands, but it would allow state regulators to impose a 500-foot buffer around them for the storage of hazardous chemicals or materials used in drilling.

In the House, a bill introduced by Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne, would increase existing buffers to 1,000 feet. Clearfield County Rep. Bud George, the ranking Democrat on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, has a bill to establish 1,000-foot barriers around buildings and water wells. For drillers that use hydraulic fracturing or horizontal drilling, his will would establish buffers of 1,000 feet around groundwater sources and 2,500 feet around surface water sources.

For decades, energy companies have drilled shallow oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. However, in the last three years, fresh environmental concerns have arisen with the influx of energy companies using high volumes of chemical-laced water in a process known as hydraulic fracturing to drill lucrative and deep Marcellus Shale wells. They also use the recent innovation of horizontal drilling underground to increase a well’s production.

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