Council hears sharp warnings against Marcellus Shale drilling

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A Pittsburgh City Council that's wrestling with the prospect of Marcellus Shale gas drilling heard warnings Monday about its potential impact but reached no consensus on how to restrict it.

"We must find a way to produce energy in this country in a way that is not conducted like war, with assumed and accepted collateral damage," urged Peggy Utesch, a Colorado community activist who said life in an area called Silt Mesa changed dramatically when the shale gas industry got there, especially after an underground leak affected wells, crops and cattle. "Keep Pittsburgh as America's most livable city," she said.

Council is considering two bills that would deal with the drilling of wells into the gas-rich shale a mile below ground. Councilman Doug Shields wants to ban drilling entirely, while Councilman Patrick Dowd wants to severely restrict it through zoning.

Mr. Shields' bill, crafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, could come up for vote at any time. Mr. Dowd's is before the planning commission but may be revised by a multi-department working group.

CELDF co-founder Thomas Linzey, participating in council's special meeting by phone, defended his nonprofit organization's approach, which is to assert localities' right to restrict corporate activities.

University of Pittsburgh School of Law professor Jules Lobel, though, predicted that the city would have "rough sledding in the courts" if it banned drilling. He said there is "still a very good reason to go forward" because it often takes "a drum beat of agitation" to get courts to respond.

Like all academic speakers at the meeting, he noted that he was not speaking on behalf of his university.

Emily Collins, of the University of Pittsburgh Environmental Law Clinic, said zoning limitations, rather than a ban, might work. She noted, though, that even if legislation eventually is thrown out by the courts, the city could be exposed to "takings" lawsuits alleging that its actions have reduced property values.

Not represented at the meeting was the Marcellus Shale Coalition. That group's president, Kathryn Klaber, said later that the industry joins residents in supporting protection of the environment and quality of life and wants to work with municipalities -- but is concerned about both proposed Pittsburgh bills.

"It would be nice if the city of Pittsburgh would recognize the win-win that could be the result of a partnership" between drillers, communities and government, she said. "It's a shame that my own home city, at the center of all of this wonderful activity, is taking a position that's frankly 180 degrees from where you would think they would be."

At the meeting, academic researchers said the industry has a mixed record.

Kent Moors, a political science professor at Duquesne University involved with its Energy Policy Research Group, said that by trucking millions of gallons of water to each drilling site, adding hundreds of chemicals, and pumping it a mile deep, the industry will have dramatic impact on the region.

"The infrastructure damage that will be done to local townships and counties is going to be devastating," he said. He said it's not yet known whether the processed water seeps up from the shale into other layers of the earth's crust.

"There's traffic. There's road degradation. There's noise. There's pollution," said John Stolz, a professor of biological sciences at Duquesne University. "And of course, there will be spills."

Drilling in Pittsburgh "is not imminent," said Ms. Klaber, but the message coming from council isn't helpful for the industry's development. "There are many places where we're successfully drilling with great landowners and municipalities as partners who want us to be there, because they're reaping the benefit of that."


Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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