Murrysville council: To drill or not to drill

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The first of a series of education sessions on gas and oil drilling sponsored by Murrysville council was held last week, inviting three speakers who have worked with — and against — the industry in Pennsylvania. In February, council voted to seek bids for drilling rights under Murrysville Community Park and announced plans to hold public meetings on the topic.

The speakers, attorney Jonathon Kamin, of Goldberg Kamin & Garvin; Susan LeGros, executive director of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development; and Martin Knuth, vice president of Civil and Environmental Consultants of Pittsburgh provided insight and answered questions about gas drilling in the state and in Murrysville.

Mr. Kamin was an attorney in a lawsuit challenging the state’s gas drilling law, Act 13. According to Mr. Kamin, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court decision to overturn portions of the law limiting local authorities' regulation of drilling created the opportunity for local governments to set the rules for their own communities.

When ACT 13 passed  in 2012, Mr. Kamin said,  "a number of my clients were concerned that all of their rights were taken away. ... We got an injunction and after fourteen months of litigation, in December, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared Act 13 unconstitutional. ... There is an obligation on state and local government to ensure that your resources are protected.” Mr. Kamin said, citing the opinion of Chief Justice Ronald Castille.

Mr. Kamin said the commonwealth and local governments are trustees of the state’s environment resources. He urged local governments to  determine what is right for their communities. “The obligations you have are very serious and will affect what your municipality is now and for future generations. Best practices are not what industry tells you is best,” he said.

When asked about banning drilling altogether, Mr. Kamin said it is not defensible to ban drilling outright. He suggested a moratorium providing a period of time to study may be more realistic.

In regard to drilling under Murrysville Community Park, Mr. Kamin said  “There is no doubt that drilling is an industrial process. The heart of zoning is compatibility. The question you have to ask is ‘Would I put an industrial use in a park? I don’t mean to be flip, but I wouldn’t go sending kids to play in a park where there is drilling’ “

According to Susan LeGros, the key to sustainable, socially responsible drilling is to find common ground that industry and those affected by the operations can agree upon. She said the Center for Sustainable Shale Development is attempting to define best practices and certify that operators are following them. She identified air and climate standards and surface and ground water standards that drillers would be held to if they want certification by the organization.

Ms. LeGros rattled off some of the criteria: “Zero discharge of waste water, 90 percent recycling of waste water, double-lined impoundment ponds, disclosure of well fluids,Our focus is to audit drilling practices, to verify proper procedures and certify that standards are met.”The Center, focused on drilling in the Appalachian region, counts Shell, Chevron, Consol and EQT among its industry members. The Center’s standards are voluntary, she said, but certification could be withdrawn if an industry member does not comply.

In response to questions about traffic, noise, air and light pollution, Mr. Knuth talked about measures taken at a well pad to minimize the impact.

“For noise abatement we can restrict hours of operations and erect noise barriers around some of the equipment. To reduce light pollution we will use more direct, focused types of lighting,” he said.” Vehicle traffic will be what it needs to be to get the project done. There are often road bonding and road repair requirements and we will try to travel off-hours and at night,” he said.

Mark Emerson of School Road asked about the health consequences of Marcellus drilling. “When folks started to mine for coal, I don’t think they knew of black lung and acid mine runoff. What do we know?” he asked.

Ms. LeGros summarized the big picture, saying the best hope is that everyone’s interests are weighed in the equation. “We have a history in Pennsylvania of coal mining and steel production. And we have seen what happens when industry leaves us with the remains. We are now looking at the health effects of shale drilling. I wish we knew the answers, but we don’t. I do have faith in the process though.” she said.

“I have zero confidence in the work the [state Department of Environmental Protection} has done [on fracking] to date,” Mr. Kamin responded. ”And I have a good knowledge as to what they have done. We’re now only starting to discover problems with testing. I don’t think we know. Anyone who tells you differently is not being honest.”

 Tim Means, freelance writer:

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