Residents question ability to regulate drilling
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Marcellus shale gas wells, already dotting rural landscapes in northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania, could soon sprout in Pittsburgh, but Jeanne McMullen said the city is unprepared to regulate the drilling.
Ms. McMullen, a resident of Rodgers Street in Lincoln Place, told City Council Wednesday that Dale Property Services, a land agent for Chesapeake Energy, has been going through the neighborhood asking people to sign gas drilling leases for a planned deep gas well on property along Mifflin Road within two blocks of the Mifflin Elementary School and a playground.
"Drilling will bring a decline in our property values, which will erode your tax base," Ms. McMullen told council, citing noise, deteriorating road conditions and water problems that could result. "The city is ill-prepared for the gas rush that is on us."
She said the Lincoln Place drilling site in the 31st Ward is near a heavily wooded, steep embankment, could cause mudslides, and up to 200 tanker trucks a day will travel already bad neighborhood roads to supply the well drilling operation near the city's border with West Mifflin.
"I understand we need the natural gas, but there's a responsible way to do it and an irresponsible way," said Ms. McMullen, who is one of the founders of the fledgling Lincoln Place Action Group, formed to inform residents and local and state officials about the issues of leasing and drilling in the Marcellus shale formation.
"The roads, for example, are just going to fall apart because of the truck traffic and paying for their repair will fall on the taxpayers," Ms. McMullen said.
It's been estimated that the Marcellus shale beds, 5,000 to 8,000 feet deep below three-quarters of Pennsylvania, including the city of Pittsburgh, could hold as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to supply U.S. gas demands for 10 to 15 years. Developing it could bring billions of dollars into the state and create thousands of jobs, according to the gas industry and some state officials.
Approximately 2,500 Marcellus shale gas well drilling permits were issued from 2007 through 2009 by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which projects another 5,000 permits will be issued this year.
More than 300 Marcellus shale wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania so far, but Neil Weaver, a DEP spokesman, said the department has no permit applications pending for Marcellus shale wells in Pittsburgh.
Councilman Doug Shields, whose district includes Lincoln Place, said land leasing agents began working Lincoln Place in the fall, asking people to sign "standard leases" allowing access to their land for drilling in return for small up-front payments and royalties if drilling occurs. "They'll tell you anything and you'll sign on the bottom line," he said.
Chesapeake Energy did not respond to multiple phone requests for comment.
Chad Mackert, district land man for Dale Property Services, confirmed that the company has held several meetings in the Lincoln Place area, has surface lease agreements where a drill pad could be installed and "procured multiple leases to put together a drillable unit."
He said a drilling company like Chesapeake would normally seek a state well permit only after enough leases are signed.
Mr. Shields said he arranged a community meeting in the fall at Mifflin Elementary School at which attorney Kris Vanderman, who represents property owners in negotiations with drilling firms, told residents of their rights.
Council, he said, will explore whether it can compel drillers and brokers to register with the city, "so we know who they are, we can collect payroll taxes from them, and we can tell people what's going on in their neighborhoods."
He'd also like the city to weigh the environmental effects and potential revenue from selling drilling rights to the thousands of acres it owns, including parks. "This could be a lot better than a tuition tax," he said.
Geologists have known about the 450 million-year-old bed of Devonian shale for decades but natural gas price spikes and recent advances in drilling technology, including horizontal drilling and hydrological "fracking" -- which uses millions of gallons of water per well to break up the shale and release the gas -- have caused gas companies to rush into Pennsylvania and begin drilling.
First Published February 4, 2010 12:00 am