Home > Lehigh Valley News > Allentown DRBC ruling could bring Marcellus shale impact to the Lehigh Valley
Proposed regulations could bring drilling to the watershed or effectively maintain the drilling ba
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Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site in Bradford County in April. Freeing natural gas from dense rock requires a powerful drilling process called hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which uses millions of gallons of water brewed with chemicals that some fear threaten to pollute water above and below ground, deplete aquifers and perhaps endanger human health and the environment. (RALPH WILSON, ASSOCIATED PRESS / April 23, 2010)
PHOTO: The powerful drilling process called "fracking"
GRAPHIC: Marcellus Shale
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New York University By Tim Darragh, OF THE MORNING CALL
11:17 p.m. EDT, September 11, 2010
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For the past two and a half years, efforts to tap a massive shale formation deep underground for its natural gas have continued at a breakneck pace in most of central, western and northern Pennsylvania.
The nearest reaches of the Marcellus shale lie just beyond the Lehigh Valley, in Monroe and Carbon counties. But the rush to unlock the formation's 500-plus trillion cubic feet of natural gas will likely have an impact on the Valley's most important natural resource, the Lehigh River.
That's because in the shale-bearing counties north of the Valley, waters bubble up from the ground to form the headwaters of the Lehigh River — and if there's one thing drillers need besides natural gas, it's water. Millions of gallons for each well drilled.
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That is one reason the Delaware River Basin Commission, which has review rights over large withdrawals of water, has issued a moratorium on well-drilling in its watershed, including in the northern counties. DRBC regulators, however, are planning to release proposed regulations soon, perhaps even later this month, that could signal the beginning of drilling in the region.
And, whether you believe natural gas extraction will provide a financial bonanza and abundant supply of domestic energy or a looming regional environmental catastrophe, it will have an impact on the Lehigh Valley's water if drillers get a green light.
"Any extractive industry is going to have an environmental cost — any," said Bucknell University professor Carl Kirby, who is studying water chemistry in central Pennsylvania, an area already being drilled. "The question is, are the benefits going to outweigh the costs?"
How that question is answered will have an indelible impact on eastern Pennsylvania and beyond.
Sitting at Tick-Tock's restaurant in Honesdale with other Wayne County residents who have signed leases with natural gas companies, Mike Uretsky, a soft-spoken retired professor of information systems at New York University, looks nothing like a wild-eyed land speculator.
"No one here is in the 'drill, baby, drill' group," he says.
With around 1,300 other homeowners in Wayne County, Uretsky and his companions at Tick-Tock's joined other property owners to negotiate a groupwide lease that provides environmental and legal protections, fair payments for the mineral rights to their land and royalties for extracted gas. His group, the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, signed a deal last year with Hess Corp. that pays $1,500 per acre for the lease, with the promise of another $1,500 if it is determined the site is worth long-term drilling. Property owners also would receive 20 percent of the net royalties from extraction.
Members object to suggestions that their only interest is cashing in on a "gas rush," saying they had rejected offers of quick money without proper safeguards. "If the only thing we were interested in was money, we would have made a lease with someone else," Uretsky said.
At the same time, Chuck Coccodrilli, a member who also is president of the Southern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, said bringing new income and jobs to the region is a good reason to support drilling.
"My business is down 30 percent," said the self-employed antiques broker. "I think it's a very valid point" to highlight the economic benefits.
Ultimately, the property owners say, they should be able to use their land as they want. And it galls them that the DRBC, which is not an elected body, has effectively taken that right away with its drilling freeze.
Drilling opponents, the property owners said, have a "Not In My Backyard' outlook that ignores the economic and environmental benefits of providing America with a clean-burning, domestic source of energy.
"On a purely environmental level, they should be screaming for us," Coccodrilli said.
The property owners aren't oblivious to drilling mishaps that have occurred elsewhere in Pennsylvania. A well blowout in Clearfield County in June — which resulted in more than $400,000 in fines after operator errors caused gas and contaminated water to spew from a well for 16 hours — was an environmental mess, Coccodrilli said. But no one was hurt and the damage was contained, he noted. That outcome shows that fears over an enormous disaster like BP's spill in the Gulf of Mexico are exaggerated, he said.
Many of the public's concerns stem from the method of breaking up the shale deposits to release the natural gas, a process called hydraulic fracturing, or just "fracking." With the Marcellus shale, energy companies drill about a mile into the ground and then direct the drill thousands of feet horizontally. Water mixed with sand and chemicals is then pumped into the well at high pressure, causing the rock to fracture. The gas, and some of the water, are then extracted. While the process is not new, refinements have only recently made tapping the deep rock affordable to energy companies.