FORTY FORT – Much has changed in the landscape of Northeastern Pennsylvania's natural gas drilling in the last five years, but as the old adage advises: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Wyoming Seminary's Louis Maslow STEM School on Wednesday brought together a diverse panel – consisting of three local and state lawmakers, a state environmental regulator, two gas industry spokesmen, an ethicist, two university scientists and an environmental consultant – to ruminate on the evolution of gas industry technology, government's power to regulate and tax the extraction business, science's grasp of the short- and long-term impacts of shale drilling and the public's understanding of all three.
Speaking at the Wyoming Seminary Lower School, William desRosiers, of Cabot Oil and Gas, and Rory Sweeney, of Chesapeake Energy, outlined some of the technological wizardry that engineers have developed to find and extract gas from the Marcellus Shale rock formation in Pennsylvania. They described drilling rigs that can walk between well pads, eliminating the need for disassembly; drills that can hit a 10-foot target more than a mile down; and three-dimensional visualization studios allowing geologists to see the formation they will drill into before ever breaking ground.
They added that the industry has taken steps to minimize the risk of environmental damage from drilling by voluntarily exceeding state requirements in areas such as well casing construction and wastewater recycling.
Ken Klemow, director of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research at Wilkes University, acknowledged the gas industry has made strides in the technological sophistication of its practices and its environmental stewardship, but added that much about the short- and long-term impacts of drilling on the environment and public health remain uncertain. There is still a severe disconnect between what industry perceives that they're doing and what everybody else thinks that they're doing, he said.
The public has become more aware of scientific studies that have been released about shale drilling's impacts, but said people's perception of those remains colored by their views in favor of or against the industry, Klemow said.
We have to stop doing that, he said. We have to engage in thoughtful, productive discussion and find a way of getting some consensus.
For state Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Kingston, and West Wyoming Councilwoman Eileen Cipriani, the uncertainty surrounding the industry's impact was cause for increasing state oversight of drilling.
If the science was clear about the safety of this energy production these studies would not be taking place, Mundy said. How do you weigh the benefits (of gas extraction) when you really don't know what the long-term risks are?
And while state Rep. Sandra Major, R-Bridgewater, touted the millions of dollars that municipalities and counties in her district – which includes heavily drilled portions of Susquehanna and Wyoming counties – took in last year through the state's natural gas impact fee law, she said that fee revenue has been distributed unevenly. The state could take in much more through an extraction tax, she said, noting the Act 13 impact fee is equivalent to an extraction tax of 2.6 percent – less than half the tax rates imposed by West Virginia and Texas.
In his opening remarks, discussion moderator and Wyoming Seminary President Kip Nygren said the question of how to exploit the resources of our planet, especially energy resources, is a fundamental question for all societies … and it doesn't have a simple answer.