Panel Supports Marcellus Shale Development

Steve Snyder
Lebanon Daily News

Marcellus Shale natural gas is a bridge to a sustainable-energy future for the United States and can continue to stimulate Pennsylvania’s economy for decades, three Penn State professors told a local audience of about 100 Wednesday afternoon.

The professors spoke at the invitation of state Sen. Mike Folmer, who organized a forum that lasted close to three hours in the municipal building’s auditorium.

Terry Engelder, a professor of geoscience, said that Marcellus Shale represents an opportunity for the U.S. to decrease its dependence on foreign oil.

Engelder said the nation is fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan largely to protect its oil supply. He acknowledged there are risks involved in natural gas drilling, but said

those risks need to be compared to the rewards it could produce, both in terms of energy production and security.

“We can’t get to sustainability without going through the gas era,” a time which Engelder said is “temporary.”

Engelder served on Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission but insisted “I’m not an industry lapdog.”

He was joined on the panel by Rose Baker, an assistant professor of education, and David Passmore, a professor of education. Both are members of Penn State’s Workforce Education and Development program.

In introducing the forum, Folmer said he is weighing property-owner rights and environmental concerns. Folmer said most of the opponents of drilling live outside of areas that are directly affected by it.

Folmer said that if an impact fee or tax is assessed on gas companies, it should be used specifically to cover costs associated with drilling, like road repairs, and not go into the general fund.

“Pennsylvania taxpayers should not be on the hook for a clean-up tax or impact fee,” Folmer said.

The forum’s purpose, he said, was to discuss the gas industry’s economic impact and the science of hydrofracking, which is the process used to extract gas from the shale located thousands of feet below the surface.

Passmore said natural gas development is having a positive economic impact on the state but added, “What we don’t know is the full economic cost/benefit picture.”

Studies predict that, if an impact fee is enacted, it could cost up to 4,000 jobs, a relatively low number given that the total jobs connected to drilling varies widely based on different studies but is estimated as high as 44,000, with another 140,000 jobs indirectly related to drilling.

Baker said that 150 different occupations are connected to natural-gas operations and that 410 jobs are connected to each well.

“There is a huge amount of opportunity for employment,” Baker said. “We’re very excited about the workforce potential.”

Engelder said he lost a high-school classmate in the Vietnam War, and that is a major reason he favors Marcellus Shale development.

“I’m reasonably sure war is immoral,” he said. “This is a primary driver. … To achieve that future generations don’t have to fight internationally to preserve their lifestyle.”

Other points were covered by the panelists during a lengthy question-and-answer session:

  • Engelder predicted that the U.S. will never be a large exporter of natural gas.
  • The state requires landowners and drillers to test water wells before fracking begins, so that both parties “know what’s in groundwater ahead of time,” Engelder said.
  • Baker said gas companies have been paying to repair roads in areas where truck traffic from drilling operations has increased.
  • Studies are being done to determine the impact of drilling on residents’ health, but most health effects would be long-term, Baker said.
  • Between 60 and 70 percent of new hires for drilling operations are Pennsylvania residents, a large increase from when drilling started about four years ago, Passmore said. Folmer noted that classes specifically designed to train students for gas-industry jobs are filled at Penn College in Williamsport.
  • The effect of drilling on tourism has yet to be determined. “The concern is crowding out,” Passmore said, referring to the process in which employees of drilling companies take over lodging and restaurants.
  • Pennsylvania has between four and six shale layers, some above and others below Marcellus, Engelder said. “All of these prospective gas shale layers are in the Appalachian basin,” Engelder said. “This might make the Appalachian basin unique globally.”