Marcellus Shale drilling debated on campus

By Andrew Shull

The statewide issue of natural gas drilling touched down once again on Pitt’s campus, with… The statewide issue of natural gas drilling touched down once again on Pitt’s campus, with experts on both sides adding to the debate.

Attorneys, students, engineers and scientists gathered in the University Club ballroom yesterday to discuss legal and environmental issues associated with Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The industry could affect hundreds of thousands of people’s employment statewide, as well as the environments in which they live.

Yesterday’s symposium comes at a turning point for the industry. Gov. Tom Corbett’s current budget proposal calls for no extraction tax on Marcellus Shale, a legislative decision which would make Pennsylvania the only gas-producing state without such a tax. The proposal represents a shift from former Gov. Ed Rendell’s policy of banning drilling in state forests and pursuing an extraction tax.

The debate’s importance was evidenced by the opening address of Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley — the head of the Marcellus Shale Commission, a body put together by Corbett to address drilling issues.

Cawley and Corbett have said that they want to pursue environmentally sound, but not overly restrictive, regulation of the drilling industry. Other states have pursued a different angle in approaching the Marcellus Shale issue. New York placed a year-long moratorium on drilling in 2010.

The keynote speaker for the afternoon was Kathryn Klaber, president and executive director of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group that represents the business interests of the various industries involved in all stages of natural gas production.

“Just because you are pro-environment doesn’t mean you need to be anti-business,” she said.

Klaber argued during her speech that drilling is safe, and that the primary concern of many environmental groups is mitigated by the amount of space between the shale deposits and the aquifers.

Klaber said that there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from natural gas drilling.

But Pitt law professor Emily Collins said that groundwater contamination is only one of the many environmental issues that could arise from Marcellus Shale drilling.

During her speech, Collins stressed that many of the steps involved in fracking can have negative environmental impacts.

She pointed to improper disposal of the fracking fluid, ineffective treatment of that fluid, spills and improper well construction, air quality issues from the combined effect of all the wells, solid waste sent to landfills that aren’t designed to handle such substances, naturally occurring radioactive materials that can come up during the fracking process and water withdrawals as all potential hazards.

Klaber said that there are a number of environmentalists working within the industry, and she encouraged students who are interested in environmental issues to look into finding new ways to make the process safer from within the industry.

Natural gas drilling, known as “fracking,” begins by drilling underneath groundwater aquifers and then horizontally into the shale formations. Then tiny cracks are blasted into the rock layer, after which pressurized water with additives is pumped into the cracks to release the gas.

The water contains sand particles, which keep the cracks from closing, allowing the natural gas to flow out to the surface.

That process has drawn the ire of environmental groups, who assert that the process isn’t safe and can lead to the contamination of water supplies. Pittsburgh City Council banned natural gas drilling last November because of environmental concerns.

Collins said that the best solution to environmental problems would be focusing on the safest practices and making those practices uniform. She said she did not think that banning drilling outright was the best option.

Other speakers included professors, attorneys, scientists and engineers from across the country. The event ended with a panel discussion on “Finding Environmental Solutions through Innovation, Regulation and Prohibition.”

The University of Pittsburgh Law Review sponsored the the event.

Holly Christie, a third-year law student at Pitt and the editor-in-chief of the Pitt Law Review, said that the symposium would be a great opportunity for law students and the other attendees to learn about the legal state of Marcellus Shale extraction.

“The board chose this topic because it was a timely subject, and highly debated,” Christie said. She also said that this year’s symposium was much better attended than last year’s symposium on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Emma Finney, who is a third-year law student at Pitt and coordinated the event, said that the law school tried to put together a neutral panel and that attendees represented all of the sides of the issues surrounding Marcellus Shale gas extraction.

She said that this symposium fit in well with numerous other events in Pittsburgh related to Marcellus Shale drilling and echoed Christie, saying that this was a very timely subject.