Drilling for Natural Gas in Pennsylvania

Drilling for Natural Gas in Pennsylvania

By Amy Reumann, Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania


In Pennsylvania a new American gold rush is on. This time it is to extract natural gas trapped a mile underground between layers of rock in the Marcellus Shale formation, using a recently developed technology called hydraulic (or horizontal) fracturing, or fracking. Fracking injects huge amounts of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground. This action breaks up rock formations and releases the gas, which is then brought to the surface.

            Some hail this new, domestic source of energy as a cleaner burning fuel and a bridge to more renewable sources. Gas drilling activities provide a boost to job creation and a boon for local economies during a time of recession and budget cuts. Pennsylvania has welcomed drilling and its benefits, with over 3,300 drilling permits issued in 2010 alone. Yet grave concerns about the environmental impacts of shale drilling have grown as reports of contaminated water, air and land have spread and continue to grow.


Water and Fracking

Water issues are the most pervasive in relation to shale drilling impacts:

·   Fracking one well requires about 4 million gallons of water, either drawn from local waterways or trucked in to the site.

·   Gas drillers are not required to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process. These may include substances known to be toxic to humans and wildlife, including carcinogens such as benzene.

·   A well brings over a million gallons of the fracking water back to the surface.  In addition to chemicals, it is often laced with corrosive salts and radioactive elements like radium found underground. Progress is being made in recycling this water to use in other wells but there continue to be spills and overflows from holding ponds.

·   Much of the fracking water remains underground, with ongoing debate as to the long-term implications.

·   Fracking is currently exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act due to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole”. A current EPA study that may lead to more regulation will not be completed until 2014.

Pennsylvania is the only state that has allowed drillers to discharge much of their waste into rivers through local sewage treatment plants, which are not designed to remove drilling contaminants. There are many reports of the contamination of water wells in proximity to fracking sites, most famously in Dimmock, PA. Spills and overflows of fracking waste water from holding ponds and during transport have all raised alarm, as has fracking-related pollution of rivers, including those that provide drinking water to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Harrisburg.


Other Impacts

Fracking impacts more than water. Clearing of land and laying pipeline impacts wildlife and human habitation.  Currently a third of state forest lands are leased for fracking. Testing is being done to determine air quality impact from drilling sites, especially when wells are “flared” to burn off gas. Increased heavy truck traffic impacts local roads and air quality.

            Also overlooked in the debate is how the environment of human community is also affected. Landowners who signed leases early may have gotten several hundred dollars per acre. More recently, that amount could be as much as $5,000. This disparity doesn’t sit well with some. A practice known as “forced pooling” and land titles that usually do not include mineral rights means that those who choose not to lease may still have fracking underneath their land by the horizontal wells on their neighbor’s property.

            The drilling debate has been deeply polarized in the state, and this includes Lutherans. Several congregations, camps and social ministry organizations have leased land to gas companies, providing needed income to support vital ministries. People who have found employment and economic opportunity through drilling, particularly in depressed, rural parts of the state, support its presence. At the other end of the spectrum are Lutherans actively calling for a moratorium on drilling, as there is in neighboring New York State.


Education and Advocacy

Lutheran Advocacy Ministry in Pennsylvania (LAMPa) has been active in educating Lutherans about natural gas drilling impacts and guiding moral deliberation in line with ELCA social policy. It calls us to work with both the ELCA Caring for Creation Social Statement and our Economic Life Social Statement to address this complex issue. Any conversation about fracking needs to include a look at our use of and reliance on fossil fuels, climate change and the development of alternative energy sources. Advocacy work has concentrated on instituting a severance tax on natural gas extraction (Pennsylvania is the only state without such a tax) as well as opposing expanded drilling on state lands. For more information and connection to resources for education and action, visit LAMPa’s Care for Creation web page.

To contact Amy Reumann, e-mail amy@lutheranacvocacypa.org.