The development of the massive natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Formation in the eastern United States is affecting rural communities, public health, the environment, and national and local economies.
That was the consensus reached by six health and energy experts, economists and government officials at a three-hour panel discussion April 18 in Packard Lab Auditorium.
The event, “Marcellus Shale Development: Communities, People, Health, Economics,” was sponsored by the Environmental Initiative (EI), the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, the Cluster for Sustainable Development, and the office of research and graduate studies.
The goal of the discussion, said EI co-director Frank Pazzaglia, was to promote research collaborations between Lehigh faculty and students and outside experts.
Panelists discussed the impact of Marcellus shale development on public health and the environment, on local communities and their economies and infrastructure, and on geopolitics and U.S. energy policy. A related event—an address on the impact of Marcellus Shale development by Michael Krancer, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection—was sponsored by the EI today.
The Marcellus Shale, one of the world’s largest underground gas deposits, is estimated to contain 250 to 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. About 60 percent of the land area of Pennsylvania is contained within the Marcellus Formation. In 2010, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection issued 3,314 drilling permits for Marcellus Shale.
A boom that few expected
The development of Marcellus Shale gas deposits has been compared to the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s. The pace of development in the last six years, and the use of hydraulic fracturing and other drilling techniques that extract gas more efficiently, raise multiple concerns, panelists said.
“In 2008, we were hit by a freight train,” said Ray Stolinas, director of the Bradford County Office of Community Planning and Grants. “Our county has the most drilled wells in the state with 2,000 drilling permits issued. The courthouse is inundated with title seekers. Hotels are filled and apartment rents have tripled.
“On the other hand, Bradford County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Pennsylvania.”
The scale of activity has caught communities and regulators flatfooted, panelists said.
“There is not yet much peer-reviewed literature on the risks of Marcellus Shale to the environment or on its potential to disrupt communities,” said Sheila Olmstead, a research fellow with Resources for the Future.
The environmental risks, panelists said, include contamination of underground drinking water supplies, wetlands and parks.
Potential community disruptions include increased traffic and noise, decreased tourism, greater demands on police and emergency personnel, unequal distribution of wealth from resource development, and population fluctuations caused by arrivals and departures of large numbers of workers.
Edward Chow, a senior fellow in the Energy and National Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the development of Marcellus Shale gas has had a global impact.
“Five to seven years ago, the U.S. was expecting to import liquefied natural gas,” said Chow. “Now it’s producing more natural gas than Russia. And the price of gas is about $2 per 1,000 cubic feet, down from $13.”
Other panelists were Diane McLaughlin, professor of rural sociology and demography at Penn State University; Jill K. Kriesky, senior project coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health; and Andrew Stewart, chief of litigation and audit policy in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Enforcement.
The discussion was moderated by Thomas Hyclak, professor of economics; Henri Barkey, professor of international relations; Sharon Friedman, professor of journalism and communications; and Alex Bodzin, associate professor of education.
Photos by Christa Neu