Testimony on Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling and the Environment Before the Pennsylvania House Democratic Policy Committee

I think that John Quigley, recent DCNR Secretary under Gov. Rendell put it best when he said, “The cumulative impacts of the Marcellus/Utica Era will dwarf all of Pennsylvania’s previous waves of resource extraction combined.”



Testimony of David Masur, PennEnvironment Director, in front of the House Democratic Policy Committee about Marcellus Shale gas drilling on July 27, 2011:

Good morning. My name is David Masur, and I am the Director for PennEnvironment. PennEnvironment is a non-profit, citizen-based environmental advocacy organization. I’d like to start out by thanking Rep. Santarsiero, Chairman Sturla and the members of the House Democratic Policy Committee for inviting me to testify on the issue of Marcellus Shale gas drilling today.

I think that John Quigley, recent DCNR Secretary under Gov. Rendell put it best when he said, “The cumulative impacts of the Marcellus/Utica Era will dwarf all of Pennsylvania’s previous waves of resource extraction combined.” 

To put that to perspective, the current projected bill for cleaning up the legacy of coal mining pollution is $16 billion—a price tag that will predominantly be paid by the taxpayers. I can only imagine what Secretary Quigley’s prediction means for our environment, health and economy if the Marcellus and Utica shales are expected to have a cumulative impact that’s greater than coal, oil and logging combined.

That being said, while I believe we could discuss in great detail all of the environmental and public health threats, as well as the economic challenges posed by Marcellus Shale gas drilling, for time’s sake I’d like to focus my testimony on the issue of the day—the release of the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission’s long awaited report. 

From PennEnvironment’s perspective, no one should be surprised by the findings of the advisory commission study—it was a fairly predictable document, considering the deck was loaded with individuals who stand to make massive financial gains from Marcellus Shale gas drilling in the Commonwealth. 

Moreover, the imbalanced makeup of the commission was so glaringly obvious it felt more like a lead in to a bad joke (“What do you get when you lock ten gas and oil executives into a room for six months?…”), instead of a thoughtful and meaningful way to come up with public policy.

But in all seriousness, let me make two important points in regards to the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission’s recent list of recommendations.

First, on the process—as I mentioned, PennEnvironment and many others were skeptical of this process from the beginning. We predicted—as did many—that the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission would serve as nothing more than a stall tactic for Gov. Corbett and his friends in the gas drilling industry in the face of growing concern from the public and from legislators about the industry’s ability to safely drill for gas in the Commonwealth. 

While I believe that members of both parties and chambers were serious about tackling many of the pressing issues related to Marcellus Shale gas drilling—from a severance tax or impact fee, to environmental and public health standards—the Governor made it quite clear that no action would be taken—or at least no bill would be signed if sent to his desk—until the advisory commission finished its work.

And now, what we know today, is that all of this dawdling only wasted time—there has no significant policy proposal offered by the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission that wasn’t already part of the political dialogue in Harrisburg prior to the advisory commission’s creation. 

For example, this time last year, the legislature was already fighting tenaciously to implement a severance tax by October 1st, while the industry was pushing hard to get forced pooling approved and override local zoning in order to drill where they pleased. 

To go even further back, some of the policy handles where there were conceptual agreements between the environmental community and the advisory commission, were policies that PennEnvironment had already highlighted—in a study we released and that garnered statewide media attention back in 2009. 

Furthermore, many of the most important and commonsense policies that the environmental community asked the advisory commission to support were completely ignored or opposed by members of the commission. This includes, but is not limited to, conducting a cumulative impact analysis to determine impacts of drilling on air, water and land; addressing air pollution impacts from gas extraction, including removing permit exemptions and requiring best available pollution control technologies; and that drilling companies should be required to test nearby drinking water wells prior to any drilling occurring, similar to requirements currently on mining. 

As we know today, none of these important proposals were supported by the commission. 

Other proposals by the industry were half measures. For example: 

  • The environmental community recommended that setbacks for wells should be increased to 3,000 feet from structures & water sources (i.e., based on the Duke University study indicating methane migration at this distance)—with a strong recommendation of 5,000 feet to provide a margin of safety.  Instead, the advisory commision offered setbacks for wells should be increased to 500 feet from structures and private water sources and 1,000 feet from all public water sources—except when those water authorities or owners waive that right.
  • Environmental groups recommended increasing the presumed zone of contamination to 5,000 feet and eliminate any expiration date for this presumption. Instead, the commission proposed increasing the presumed zone of contamination to 2,500 feet and increasing the time limit to 1 year.
  • Environmental groups requested a prohibition on the discharge of drilling wastewater to rivers, and requiring a public tracking system for wastewater. The commission proposed well operators should only be required to track and report drilling wastewater shipments.
  • The environmental community recommended the implementation of an impact fee or severance tax to ensure that gas drillers pay the full cost of permanently removing valuable natural resources from the Commonwealth and for the mitigation and cleanup of subsequent damage to water, air, and land—problems that affect all Pennsylvanians. The advisory commission proposed levying a generic local impact fee (with no specific amount recommended). 

But as I mentioned, most of these policies handles have been debated for years, and many if not most have been proposed as legislation in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Clearly the commission didn’t come up with any cutting edge concepts here.

Besides offering nothing new to protect the public from the dangers of deep well gas drilling, the industry did come forth with a slew of policies that will make it easier for them to drill wherever they want and whenever they want—while not being properly held accountable for their pollution. 

Clearly these policy recommendations were meant to put short-term financial gain for a few ahead of the long term wellbeing for the most. 

Some of the commission’s most egregious and special interest driven recommendations include:

  • Promoting forced pooling policies to remove private mineral rights owners’ ability to control their own property (in this case, the minerals that they own); 
  • Weakening local zoning laws that may impeded the gas drilling industry from drilling; 
  • Opposing recommendations calling for no future leasing of state forests for drilling;

It is an unfair trade off to give the industry its priority policy handles, which will give them carte blanche to drill in the Commonwealth, in exchange for the handful of basic policies that should be the bare minimum for any drilling that takes place in the Commonwealth. It’s unfair to barter these policies like baseball cards—an impact fee for forced pooling; repealing local zoning in exchange for basic chemical right to know standards, etc. 

Lastly, many legislators and members of the commission have remarked that it’s time to open up and make changes to the Oil and Gas Act. Let me strongly recommend against that. Opening that Pandora’s box, given the current political climate in Harrisburg and the industry’s ability to use its access and influence to dominate political discourse, can lead to nothing good on this issue. PennEnvironment is confident that the industry will use this to make sure that the most egregious, most dangerous policies are amended into this legislation, while Pennsylvania’s citizens will be left with only crumbs. 

So let me wrap up by saying that while the debate continues, PennEnvironment hopes that the legislature will work aggressively to implement strong, commonsense policies to tackle the environmental and public health impacts from gas drilling—policies that if implemented proactively will help us avoid the worst scenarios from gas drilling. Sadly, these are, for the most part, not the policies being proposed by the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

In closing, I again want to thank Rep. Santarsiero and Chairman Sturla for inviting me to today’s policy committee hearing. I look forward to working with you all on this important issue.