Drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania represents the single largest potential environmental impact since coal mining. Thousands of wells, hundreds of miles of pipelines, rebuilt roads and hundreds of millions of gallons of water are used. This single industry will fundamentally change our landscape culturally, economically and environmentally.
Six years ago when drilling began to ramp up in the commonwealth, many of us were unaware of what it would mean. Today, we see firsthand the changes that have occurred in a region that contains many of our most pristine natural resources. We remain concerned because we realize that the changes happening to the landscape, to our waterways and to our communities are monumental.
I can’t say that 20 years from now when we look back on all of this that we will have done everything we could to protect our natural resources. But I do want to be able to say we tried, and I hope to be able to say we were successful.
It was for this reason that I asked for a seat on the governor’s Marcellus Advisory Commission.
As a member of the commission, I am cautiously optimistic about the outcomes. Our final report and recommendations provide a roadmap for the General Assembly and the Corbett administration to enact meaningful legislation, policy and regulation to protect our natural resources and communities from the many environmental concerns associated with natural gas drilling operations. It also addresses numerous safety and health-related issues, and outlines potential economic opportunities.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation believes that the report is an important first step. If implemented, these recommendations would lead to greater protections of our waterways, the environment and the health and safety of the residents of the commonwealth.
Some of the key recommendations that will lead to meaningful environmental protection include:
1. Providing for substantial improvements in erosion and sediment control and permitting. While oil and gas well sites have the potential to send large volumes of sediment into our streams and rivers, sites smaller than 5 acres are not permitted with the same scrutiny as other similar construction sites. Enforcing the same standards for the oil and gas industry as traditional construction sites will lessen the environmental threats of excess pollution in our waterways.
2. Bringing the County Conservation Districts back into the permitting and oversight process. County conservation districts fulfill the valuable role of providing in-the-field, hands-on information about local environmental issues. Re-establishing their role in the process will help guide the planning, permit review and inspection of drilling-related activities in the region.
3. Key setback provisions to protect our homes, drinking water wells, waterways and environmentally sensitive areas. To better protect water resources, the recommendations call for amending the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Act to increase the minimum setback distance of a well pad from a spring, stream or body of water from 100 to 300 feet. This is increased to 500 feet if the waterway was designated as high quality or exceptional value. This will protect our waterways from the encroachment of a well-pad operation.
These are merely three of dozens of environmentally focused recommendations that were included in the report.
Not every one of our recommendations was adopted, but at the end of the day, we made significant progress toward protecting our rivers and streams, and on numerous other fronts.
However, there are significant issues that need to be addressed. Specifically, we need increased commitment to maintaining the integrity of the Oil and Gas Fund, and no additional surface impacts in our state forests. We will continue to advocate for those issues with the administration and the General Assembly.
Additionally, we still need to understand the long-term impacts drilling will have on our water quality, landscapes, air quality, communities and public health, and to make every effort to protect the commonwealth from adverse impacts.
A number of the commission’s recommendations address the need for understanding cumulative and future impacts. We strongly encourage the immediate initiation of the assessments and studies necessary to better understand those issues, so that we may address them in the most expedient manner.
The commission’s report provides an important tool for the general public, conservation groups, public health interests, local communities and other interested parties to advocate for advancing these issues and to hold our leaders accountable for taking the next steps of this process.
Ultimately, the report is a starting point for further discussions and provides a valuable set of agreed-upon recommendations to use as the basis for crafting legislation, regulation and policy. The CBF will be moving forward to tackle our priorities and many other Marcellus extraction-related issues, and we look forward to conversations with the administration and General Assembly about next steps.
Matthew Ehrhart is Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a member of the governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.