Pennsylvania Needs A Comprehensive Marcellus Shale Strategy

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Marcellus Shale continues to dominate the news due to a series of unfortunate events at well sites in western Pennsylvania, national questions regarding the safety of the hydraulic fracking process, and recent policy withdrawals made by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

The most recent well site accidents underscore the fact that even with the best regulations in place, failures of technology and human error are inevitable and can lead to significant impacts. But Pennsylvania cannot yet lay claim to the best regulatory program for this industry. Well sites are located in myriad settings throughout the state – near homes, sensitive natural resources, and public recreation areas, to name just a few – and each individual drill site itself is a large scale operation connected into a large stream of infrastructure and activity.

The calls for better management aren’t merely voices of dissent. They reflect a high degree of genuine concern from throughout Pennsylvania and point to a compelling need for rigorous controls that will guarantee public safety, environmental protection, and calm the fears of communities statewide.

The industry needs to be a leader in implementing better management practices for the full life cycle of well operations, and in several instances it has done so. The industry, communities, and landowners have every incentive, and should be given every opportunity, to work proactively on not just mitigating adverse impacts, but preventing them.

But the key ingredient is government regulation. Evidence from other deep shale states proves that effective state regulations are essential to better industry management, and in its first two months the new Administration and General Assembly have already taken a few actions. One such action in particular is DEP’s decision to withdraw recent guidance on avoiding impacts to state forest and park land, and how best to approach air pollution controls for deep shale gas production.

Some have argued that these policies should be withdrawn for reasons of parliamentary procedure, potential redundancy, or even overall legal validity. We believe those arguments miss the point, and significantly ignore the bigger picture on the hearts and minds of the people of Pennsylvania.

Marcellus Shale has already proven that it can transform Pennsylvania’s natural and built environment. Citizens, communities, representatives from the industry, agency leaders, and members of General Assembly all recognize that more needs to be done to shape Pennsylvania’s public policies and management programs. The growth of the industry over the coming decades, including development of deeper shale gas reserves in generations to come, demand that the actions we take today don’t lead us in a backward direction in the future. Pennsylvania must learn from its mistakes of the past, not repeat them.

We are greatly concerned about the push to further open our most precious public lands – gained and cultivated for more than a century on the back of incalculable public and private investment – for a short-term revenue need.  Polls have shown that it is the will of the people of Pennsylvania to protect our state parks and forests from gas exploration and drilling. There are other solutions to the Commonwealth’s revenue problem.  While shale gas development might make sense on some state lands, and existing leases should be honored, there simply should be no further exploration or development in state forests or parks whenever possible.

We have long recognized the imperative of managing the growth of a Marcellus Shale gas industry, and yet Pennsylvania still lacks a comprehensive approach and commitment to this challenge.  When the Pennsylvania Environmental Council (PEC) released its Marcellus Shale Policy Report last year – a report derived from open discussions with citizens, industry leaders and policy makers – we laid out the specific needs that had to be addressed and cautioned that the time to realize this commitment is now.  Since then, we have seen incremental improvements to the regulatory program, but much works remains to be done.

Governor Corbett has stated his intention to create an open Marcellus Shale Commission to aggressively and holistically address policy, information, and outreach needs. PEC supports this initiative, but we again stress that the time to realize this commitment is now. The most recent piecemeal actions of DEP reflect the problems with Pennsylvania’s current, uneven approach.

We cannot continue to ignore the need to act, and to do so in comprehensive fashion with robust public input. We are obligated to future generations to take the necessary steps now to ensure economic prosperity, public health and safety, and environmental protection.