Students contribute to Marcellus Shale debate

By Olivia Garber

The national debate over Marcellus Shale drilling has come to Pitt, and students are making… The national debate over Marcellus Shale drilling has come to Pitt, and students are making their own contributions to the issue.

Founded in November 2009, the Pittsburgh Student Environmental Coalition is a new addition to the activism scene in Pittsburgh. The coalition, which has about 75 student members from  Pitt, Duquesne, Chatham, Carnegie Mellon and the Community College of Allegheny County, addresses both local and national environmental concerns.

In recent days, the coalition has focused on Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania, the effects of which have been debated across the state.

Members of PSEC have been involved in environmental student organizations in their own universities, including Free The Planet at Pitt. Members said the coalition provides them the opportunity to widen their influence.

Eva Resnick-Day, a member of both Free The Planet and PSEC, said the coalition’s scope extends beyond the campus. With the added resources of the other universities, she said PSEC can have a stronger voice that reaches the entire city. But, she added, the process is different for a city-spanning coalition.

“It’s easier to measure your success on campus. With the city, it’s education,” the Pitt junior said.

Lorraine Keeler, a Pitt sophomore, said that education and spreading awareness can lead to action. To educate Pittsburghers, the group has passed out fliers and other protest literature.

“If you can educate people enough, you have to hope [they will] try to make changes,” she said.

PSEC plans to contribute to a protest on Wednesday scheduled to start at Allegheny Landing on the North Shore and conclude with a rally outside of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

The Marcellus Shale Protest, described on its website as “an information clearing house,” is the main organizer of the scheduled protest. The group will lead a march around Downtown Pittsburgh with the aim of establishing a sustainable grassroots movement that will combat Marcellus Shale drilling.

PSEC is one of the many endorsers of the protest. The money the group has raised since its inception late last year has gone mostly to signs they plan on displaying at the protest.

“Stop fracking now. Go to class later,” is one of PSEC’s slogans, said Seth Bush, a PSEC and Free The Planet member. Bush added that he thinks the protest and social engagement might be worth skipping class for.

“Activism doesn’t mean running around breaking Pamela’s windows,” Bush said, referencing vandalism that occurred during last year’s G-20 Summit protests.

Not everyone agrees that fracking is dangerous for the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency declared fracking safe after a 2004 study.

The fracking process involves pumping water at high pressure into shale formations to break up the rock, freeing natural gas, in a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.”

The fracking liquid, more than 90 percent water and sand before being pumped into the well, contains a number of chemicals like hydrochloric acid, methanol and boric acid, which can be detrimental to the sanitation of natural water sources and groundwater. After breaking up the rock, the liquid needs to be disposed of carefully to avoid contamination.

According to the EPA’s study, which examined the risks of hydraulic fracking, “There was little to no risk of fracturing fluid contaminating underground sources of drinking water during hydraulic fracturing of coal-bed methane-production wells.”

The EPA retained the right, however, “to conduct additional studies in the future,” according to its website.

Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a lobbying organization for natural gas drilling companies, said hydraulic fracturing is “tightly regulated and environmentally sound.”

Windle also pointed to reports that indicate that allowing wider drilling in Pennsylvania could add as many as 212,000 jobs, plus more than $1.8 billion in state and local tax revenues, according to a news release on the Marcellus Shale Coalition website.

He said the shale drilling is a “historic opportunity for Pittsburgh.”

Members of PSEC have disagreed, at least for now.

“PSEC is trying to stay in the middle. We don’t know if [shale drilling] is safe, so we shouldn’t do it,” said Bush, a Pitt junior.

Currently, the EPA plans to conduct an additional study into shale drilling. It plans to initiate the study in early 2011 and have initial study results available by late 2012. The correlation between fracking and its potential risks to drinking water will be the major focus of the study, according to the EPA website.

In late 2009, Dimock, Pa., experienced a series of leaks from the natural gas wells, while their water supply was simultaneously polluted by high levels of methane, according to The New York Times.

Bush said he believes fracking is to blame for the pollution, although Windle said the contamination was an “well casing issue” and had nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing.

City Councilman Doug Shields, who has recently proposed a ban on shale drilling in Pittsburgh, also believes that hydraulic fracturing could be detrimental to Pittsburgh’s water supply.

He said there is no way to process the water to completely eliminate the pollution that results from fracking. He added that it’s possible to dilute the water, but the chemistry would still be there, in Pittsburgh’s drinking supply.

“The larger community has a larger investment than what’s below our feet. In Pennsylvania, it should be the number one concern — it’ll be the [students’] world tomorrow,” Shields said.

Shields also said that student involvement in the environmental issue is critical.

“The student population is far and away more vested in this than anyone else,” Shields said.

Editor’s Note: This article originally incorrectly stated the source of contamination in Dimick, Pa .  The contamination was actually a well casing issue.  The Pitt News regrets the error.