Range Resources wants to start using gas well drilling "cuttings" -- the waste rock material brought to the surface at well drilling sites -- as a paving material to build Marcellus and Utica shale gas drilling pads and access roads.
The Range application for a state general permit is the first by a Marcellus Shale gas drilling company under a state "beneficial use" general permit, according to John Poister, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman.
"The project involves the beneficial use of vertical drill cutting from natural gas wells as an aggregate in a stabilized soil pavement for construction of Marcellus and Utica Shale well pads and access roads," according to a notice in today's Pennsylvania Bulletin, where state permitting actions are recorded,
The notice said DEP received the "registration" from Range Resources on Jan. 10. A 60-day public comment period begins today.
Matt Pitzarella, a Range Resources spokesman, said the company has long wanted to use drilling cuttings for road and pad construction and noted that it's allowed in Texas.
He said granting the beneficial-use permit not only would save the company money by reducing its disposal and road and pad materials costs, but it also would benefit the environment by reducing the amount of mined aggregate needed and the amount of waste material sent to landfills.
If the state grants the permit application, Mr. Pitzarella said, the company plans to first use drill cuttings to construct a pad and access roads in Lycoming County.
"Hopefully, this can be a kicking-off point, a pilot project," he said.
The drilling cuttings material is classified as residual waste and now is either buried on site or transported to a landfill for disposal. In 2012, shale gas drillers disposed of about a million tons of waste in Pennsylvania landfills, most of it drill cuttings.
Some of those drill cuttings trucked to landfills set off radiation alarms, causing the DEP, in January 2013, to start studying and testing for radioactivity in drill cuttings, wastewater and equipment at more than 100 sites across the state.
Mr. Pitzarella said "there's no reason to think there will be any adverse environmental impact," especially since the company would be using only vertical cuttings, not the horizontal shale cuttings, which can contain more radiation.
"And regardless," he said, "the material must pass state standards for road building materials or we won't be allowed to use it."
He also suggested that use of the drill cutting could eventually be expanded to include local and state road paving.
But Briana Mordick, a petroleum geologist and staff scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said drill cuttings can potentially contain radiation or other contaminants associated with drilling mud. If used as paving material, those contaminants can leach or wash out of the material and pollute soil and nearby waterways.
"Are the drill cuttings going to be properly tested and characterized prior to their use on roads and drill pads?" Ms. Mordick said. "We would have to know the contaminations in the cuttings to assess the risk to surface waters and the environment."
Don Hopey: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1983.