|Rep. Greg Vitali
166th Legislative District
Experts offer insights on making Marcellus drilling more protective of the environment, human health
HARRISBURG, May 2 – A panel of experts offered numerous suggestions to make Marcellus Shale gas drilling safer to people and the environment during a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing held Thursday in the Capitol.
"We gathered experts in four key areas – water, air, surface and public disclosure – to give us direction," said state Rep. Greg Vitali, Democratic chairman of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, who hosted the hearing. "Now we have to analyze their testimony and craft it into legislation and policy."
Former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger said the state needs to increase the amount of oil and gas inspectors by 50 percent to ensure the industry complies with environmental laws. "Right now we do not have enough regulatory eyes looking over the gas industry," Hanger said.
Hanger added that the gas industry accounts for 14 percent of the nitrogen oxides emitted in Pennsylvania. He said 90 percent of those emissions, which can damage air and human health, can be eliminated if the industry uses modern equipment.
“When people think of potential environmental or human health impacts of unconventional gas production, the effect on water is generally what first comes to mind; however, this industry’s impact on our air is just as significant,” said Joe Osborne, legal director of the Group Against Smog and Pollution.
Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said the most important thing the state can do is create a registry of people who report symptoms linked to drilling. The bill that led to Act 13, the law regulating the gas industry, initially contained $2 million to the Department of Health to establish a health registry, but that was removed.
"People are suffering from symptoms plausibly related to shale drilling," Kriesky said.
Kriesky also said Act 13 should be revised so doctors treating those exposed to fracking chemicals do not have to sign a confidentiality agreement before they gain access to proprietary information about chemicals.
"The potential time delay and chilling effect are obstacles to the treatment of patients that are unacceptable in the face of the possible dangers posed to human health by this industry," she said.
Environmental and land use attorney Lauren Williams testified that the best way to minimize surface impacts of drilling is to restore local zoning authority over oil and gas development. Act 13 stripped communities of that authority, but Commonwealth Court struck down that portion of the law. An appeal filed by the Corbett administration is pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
"Shale gas development is an industrial operation, and zoning helps communities protect themselves from industrial accidents," Williams said. "One need only look at West, Texas and other recent industrial accidents to see the danger in placing homes, schools, and parks near industrial operations.”
In addition, some of Pennsylvania's most value state parks and forests are at risk because the state doesn't own the mineral rights below them.
“Because the Commonwealth only owns the mineral rights under approximately 20 percent, or one-fifth, of state park land, many of our state parks are wide open to drilling and gas development,” said PennFuture Policy Director Steve Stroman. "The parks at greatest risk to drilling are some of our most popular and most treasured parks including Ohiopyle, which hosts more than one million visitors per year, Cook Forest and its spectacular old growth forest; Ricketts Glen and its extraordinary waterfalls; and World’s End."
State Reps. Michael Hanna, D-Clinton/Centre, and Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, plan to introduce legislation that would protect Pennsylvania's public lands from gas drilling
Other testifiers included Clean Air Council attorney Jay Duffy, Pennsylvania Environmental Council Vice President of Legal and Governmental Affairs John Walliser, Pennsylvania Sierra Club Conservation Chairman Tom Au, Lafayette College Geology Professor Dru Germanoski, Kevin Heatley from Responsible Drilling Alliance and University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health Professor Emeritus Dr. Bernie Goldstein.
Representatives of the oil and gas industry, DEP and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources were invited to testify, but declined.