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Forestry official discusses Pennsylvania’s gas-drilling experience
October 26, 2011Tweet
Pennsylvania’s experiences with gas development and hyrdofracking can only help New York as it moves closer to the controversial drilling procedure, a former Pennsylvania state official told the Binghamton University Forum.
“This is one of those historic events that is going to shape things economically, socially, ecologically and politically,” said James R. Grace, Goddard chair in forestry and environmental resource conservation at Pennsylvania State University. “The world is not going to be the same after this happens. It’s changing life in Pennsylvania and I suspect that it will change life in the Southern Tier of New York, as well. … You will probably benefit greatly by what has happened in Pennsylvania because some of the learning curve has been straightened out.”
Grace, who spent 13 years as Pennsylvania state forester and director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry and also served as deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, provided Forum members with his observations about some of the environmental and natural resource issues related to hydrofracking during the Oct. 19 luncheon at Traditions at the Glen in Johnson City.
Acknowledging that hyrdofracking is a “hot topic” in Pennsylvania and New York, Grace first provided some background on drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The first wells were drilled in Pennsylvania in 2003 and the first lease sale took place in 2008. There are now more than 40 international and national companies involved in the state. Those companies have leased 9-10 million acres and delivered $9 billion in bonus payments.
“That’s $9 billion that was invested in rural Pennsylvania,” he said. “That is probably more money than has ever been invested in the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania.”
The state now has 3,600 wells drilled, with another 1,300-1,500 expected per year for the next 25 years, Grace said. By 2030, Pennsylvania could have 60,000 wells. Royalties from the gas leases could generate $2 billion-$3 billion per year.
Besides revenue and jobs, benefits include the end of coal and oil dependency, Grace said. But gas drilling does have its share of concerns, he added.
“’I’ve seen a lot of the benefits and revenues of gas exploration,” he said. “I’ve also seen some of the ecological shortcomings. I’m not here to say we have to stop (drilling) in Pennsylvania. That horse is out of the barn. It’s galloping down the road. My concern is that we do it in an environmentally sensitive way. Do it in a way that is going to leave our state intact. Make sure we get some of the economic benefits, while still having an environment we all cherish and utilize.”
Areas of concern include water quality and quantity, emissions, roads and habitat loss. For Grace, the water-quality issue has gotten too much attention, as there is no evidence that water will be affected by gas drilling. Water usage also is not major, he said, emphasizing that golf courses and municipalities use more water than gas-drilling companies.
Grace’s greatest concern is the effect of gas drilling on roads, particularly those in small towns not used to heavy traffic.
“Most of these companies are from Texas and Oklahoma and didn’t know what spring thaw was all about,” he said. “If anyone has invested in stone quarries or trucks to haul stone, you are getting wealthy in this operation. The companies we have dealt with have rebuilt hundreds of miles. They can’t operate without good roads.”
Another major problem in Pennsylvania was (and still is) infrastructure, Grace said. Many rural communities lacked housing, motels and emergency responses for the influx of companies and workers. Making the workers feel part of the community was also a challenge, he said.
A lack of unbiased information about gas drilling has been detrimental, Grace said, pointing to businesses and some landowners on one side and environmentalists and other landowners on the opposite side.
“Unfortunately, neither side wants to spend much time listening to the other,” he said. “The people in between don’t know what to think. I can’t (remember) any issue pertaining to the natural resources of the state that generated this much activity.”
Gas companies have a lot of money, he said, and that money has not produced a “level playing field” in Pennsylvania politics. But that money has also made the gas companies more receptive to suggestions for improving the drilling process.
“In comparison to the gas industry in the past, there are deep pockets here,” Grace said. “I haven’t found that when we say ‘There is a problem here—correct it,’ that they haven’t been willing to correct it. They have the money to correct it.”
Steady communication and proper planning and oversight can go a long way to alleviating the environmental concerns associated with gas drilling, Grace said.
“This is something that can be managed,” he said. “We’ve got to manage it. I’m not even sure I have clear vision about what things will be like in 10 years. But there are things that can be done to make things better and that’s what we are striving for in Pennsylvania.”