Shale drilling forum produces heat, light
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A public discussion of Marcellus Shale drilling -- like the process itself -- is going to involve some fracturing.
U.S. Rep. Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, assembled a seven-member panel of experts Tuesday night to address the topic and take questions from the public. But the 90-minute session at the Community College of Allegheny County's North Campus was marred by shouts and interruptions from some of the more than 100 people in attendance.
"My goal is that everyone who came out gets their questions answered," Mr. Altmire told the audience, many of whom carried signs and wore T-shirts expressing their opposition to drilling.
"We have folks from all sides of the debate. Some people have already made up their minds. They're welcome to stay, too. But that's not what this is all about. This is a public education seminar, and we have an unbelievable panel."
Questions from the audience -- and from Mr. Altmire -- focused on the chemicals involved in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the disposal of wastewater and the impact on air quality.
"Transparency is important," said Rodger Keith, an educator with Penn State who studies Marcellus Shale. "Most of the chemicals used are commonly found in products used around the house. [But] that doesn't mean you shouldn't handle them with care."
There were also concerns expressed about state monitoring and enforcement by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Alan Eichler, an environmental program manager with the DEP, assured the audience that the young industry was being watched and is expected to work by the rules, which are being improved.
"We are collecting more penalties than we ever have," Mr. Eichler said. "If this activity is going to continue, it needs to be done in an environmentally sound manner; and operators who don't comply with regulations are going to face the consequences."
Troy Jordan, an environmental scientist with the EPA and part of the Office of Enforcement, said comprehensive impact studies were under way across the state.
"We're not just looking at the injection and fracturing," he said. "We're looking at management on the surface and the disposal of fluids."
But the statements did little to reassure residents, who pointed out that Pennsylvania already has radioactive wastewater from the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island and underground coal mine fires that cannot be extinguished.
Michael W. Brinkmeyer, a director with Stonehenge Energy Resources, said the companies are careful not only because of government regulation, but also because leaks are not in their business interest.
"We make our money by recovering this product," he said. "We don't make money by venting it."
Some of the answers, however, were met with boos and catcalls.
"I understand some of you don't like the answers you're hearing," Mr. Altmire told the hecklers. "But these men are experts here to answer our questions. If you don't hear the answer you want to hear, please don't yell at our guests."
One question from the audience that Mr. Altmire pursued involved the drilling companies' use of out-of-state workers and why organized labor was not utilized.
"We make a special effort to hire workers from Pennsylvania, and we're providing training to them," said Kevin West, a managing director with EQT Corp., a natural gas company headquartered Downtown. He said contractors rely on out-of-state workers because the industry, which got its footing in places such as Texas, is relatively new.
"I think, as you see production continue and more wells being drilled ... you'll see more and more of those jobs being [taken] by workers from Pennsylvania," Mr. West said.
One of the final questions Mr. Altmire posed to the industry representatives was submitted by a member of the audience: "How can you be trusted to put the best interests of the environment and the people of Pennsylvania ahead of your profits?"
"Our company is Pennsylvania-based. Our employees have grown up here, they're educated here, they raise families here," Mr. West said. "We have many reasons to be trusted to do the right thing."
Other panelists included John Walliser, vice president for legal and governmental affairs for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, and Anthony Andrews, a Congressional Research Service specialist on energy issues.
EXPLORING THE IMPACT
THE MARCELLUS BOOM
First Published June 29, 2011 12:00 am