Pennsylvania sits atop the largest deposit of natural gas in the United States. Called the Marcellus Shale, it's a rich reserve trapped in a vast, kilometer-deep rock formation which is regarded as an important domestic source of energy and economic engine for the region.
A drilling process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that combines horizontal and vertical drilling with water, sand and chemicals has made it economical to extract.
But the rush to drill has sparked a national debate over whether and how these drilling operations should be regulated to protect public health and the environment.
Fifteen hundred protestors brought their concerns to Philadelphia this fall for “Shale Gas Outrage,” a rally calling for a halt to gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. They warn it is a disaster of unprecedented proportions unfolding across Pennsylvania.
The Marcellus Shale runs under three-quarters of their state and into Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Maryland and New York. Only Maryland and New York have instituted a moratorium and are moving with caution while they study the issue.
A year ago in western Pennsylvania, the call to ban fracking won unanimous approval from the Pittsburgh City Council.
“We now have three surrounding municipalities who have their own ban modeled on our bill,” says Councilman Doug Shields, who sponsored the measure. “And I see that movement growing. But, it's difficult when you’re up against the power, the might and the money.”
That view is shared by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based research and advocacy organization.
“We think that natural gas drilling generally and hydraulic fracturing in particular is an inherently risky process," says the group's senior counsel, Dusty Horwitt, who is lead author of an investigative report linking gas drilling to specific cases of water contamination. "We would like to see a moratorium on drilling and fracking near water supplies until we have some better science so that we know exactly what the risks are.”
Despite the public outcry, private well contamination is hard to prove. In Pennsylvania, private water wells are not regulated. And pollution, fracking proponents argue, could come from other sources such as abandoned mines, agriculture run-off or leaky septic systems.
But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has just released preliminary results of a three-year study in Pavillion, Wyoming, that found chemicals associated with fracking turning up in local ground water.
The EPA findings strengthen the case for repeal of a provision in the 2005 Energy Act that exempts fracking from the Clean Drinking Water law. Sen. Robert Casey, a democrat, is behind the initiative. At a recent government hearing he called for tough national standards.
“Why should we have a set of tough environmental rules that protect drinking water and ground water in one state and have a state next door or across the country have a whole other set of rules?" he said. "So I think we can get this right.”
But Congress is divided on the issue. At the same hearing, Republican Sen. James Inhofe voiced his opposition to federal rules. “States are different. In my state of Oklahoma, the Anadarko Shale, we’re talking about 30,000 feet (9144 meters). Go just north to Kansas (and) their shale is between 3,000 feet (914 meters) and 4,000 feet (1219 meters). So it’s different, and that’s why this one-shoe fits all just doesn’t work in this case.”
A similar debate rages in the U.S. House of Representatives where Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection secretary Michael Krancer was recently called to testify.
Krancer made it clear that he opposes federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing for many reasons. "Not every state does it. Not every state does it the same way. Not every state has the same geography. It’s also a matter of philosophy; should we have the federal government establishing a lowest common dominator?”
Back in his office at the state capital in Harrisburg, Krancer sees the Marcellus Shale as an economic boon and feels confident it can be managed in an environmentally-responsible way.
“There is no such thing as any energy source that has zero consequences or zero other impact. So whatever energy source it is there are things that need to be managed and at the end of the day, if there is no energy, there’s no economy and frankly we need energy to survive.”
In the meantime, beyond its Wyoming report, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is completing a more comprehensive study at Congress' request to determine what impact hydraulic fracturing might be having on drinking water. The initial findings, expected in 2012, could spawn stricter federal regulations and even more intense debate on Capitol Hill and in communities across the nation.