Groups rally for Marcellus Shale gas drilling restrictions

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HARRISBURG -- Susquehanna County resident Victoria Switzer came to an anti-Marcellus Shale gas drilling rally here Tuesday, and she was angry.

Since 2003, Ms. Switzer has lived in the small town of Dimock, in the state's northern tier between Scranton and the New York border. In the summer of 2009 -- after deep underground drilling for natural gas began in her area -- she said the water that came from her well turned "bubbly, smelly and foamy" and was undrinkable.

Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., which is drilling in dozens of locations in the county, insisted it didn't cause the problem. But Ms. Switzer said Cabot did start trucking in bottled drinking water last October for her and 22 other families whose wells also were fouled. Ms. Switzer said that in her opinion, there has to be some connection between the underground drilling and the "methane migration" that has ruined so many water wells in the area.

And lately, she added, other chemicals, such as ethyl benzene, xylene and toluene have shown up in her water. She thinks the "fracking" process used to extract natural gas, where chemicals are mixed with large amounts of water and pumped underground to force out the gas, is responsible.

"How did these chemicals get into my water?" she said. "I didn't have this problem before the drilling started."

She got a lot of support from the dozens of environmental groups who rallied at the Capitol in support of several Marcellus-related bills -- one that would impose a tax on gas extracted from the hundreds of wells around the state, another that would direct state environmental officials to more closely monitor the effect of drilling on streams and underground water, and a third bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on drilling any new wells.

The activists demanded that the Legislature act on the bills before leaving in mid-October to go home and campaign for the Nov. 2 election, but time for action is growing short. So far legislators haven't been able to agree on specifics for a gas severance tax, which could generate $100 million to be split among state agencies and municipalities that are facing higher costs related to gas drilling.

In a statement Tuesday, Cabot denied that its drilling is causing water problems for Susquehanna County residents. In its fracking process, Cabot said, it hasn't used any of the chemicals that Ms. Switzer complained about.

Cabot said it has examined water samples taken from the area in 2008, before drilling began. "These sample results confirm the presence of many of the chemicals in water samples taken [from Dimock properties] prior to gas well drilling in the area," Cabot said. The firm said it "remains committed to safe and secure operations in Susquehanna County."

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group of natural gas producers, also released a statement by Department of Environmental Protection official Scott Perry, who said, "A lot of folks relate the problem in Dimock to a fracking problem. I just want to make sure everyone's clear on this -- that it isn't. We've never seen an impact to fresh groundwater directly from fracking."

At the rally, the environmentalists released their "platform of state action" with 13 demands, such as a Marcellus Shale gas severance tax and "a moratorium on further drilling on both private and public lands" so regulations can be developed to "fully protect our environment, health and communities."

The groups also want the Legislature to prohibit what they called "forced pooling." If pooling is allowed, one landowner who refuses to sign a lease for drilling under his property could be forced to do so just because all the nearby property owners have signed such leases.

The groups also want distance requirements between wells, so they can't be clustered together.

"There should be reasonable laws and best practices put in place during the drilling into Marcellus Shale," said Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne, a moratorium proponent. "People are frustrated, confused and flat-out angry about the [drilling] accidents that have occurred and about the lack of [General Assembly] action to protect them."

The environmental groups at the rally, who chanted "No Free Pass for Oil and Gas," included Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club, the Gas Accountability Project, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Penn Environment.

Also at the rally was Josh Fox, creator of the controversial documentary film "Gasland," which is critical of the gas drilling industry.

Also Tuesday, another critic of gas companies, Gene Stilp of Harrisburg, brought his 25-foot-high, inflatable pink pig back to the Capitol, where he had used it in 2005 to protest legislative pay raises. This time he hung a banner on it reading "Rendell Fire Powers."

He was calling for Gov. Ed Rendell to fire James Powers Jr., director of the state Office of Homeland Security, who had distributed "anti-terrorism bulletins" that warned law enforcement agencies against a number of protest groups, including those opposed to gas drilling.

And in yet another action Tuesday, House Republicans unveiled a four-part plan to promote the use of natural gas instead of gasoline. They called on state agencies to "transition" the 16,000 gasoline-powered vehicles in the state fleet to vehicles that run on natural gas. That would "reduce the commonwealth's reliance on oil and create a tremendous demand for the natural gas available right here in Pennsylvania," said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York.

Republicans also called for tax credits for companies that convert their fleets to natural gas and for financial incentives to local governments and mass transit agencies that do the same. Those three changes would cost about $60 million, they estimated.

The GOP also called for building natural gas stations at every other service station along the Pennsylvania Turnpike so it's easier for drivers to refuel their gas-powered cars.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes: tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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