Drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and surrounding states has stirred up concern in some communities over ecosystem, watershed, and human health impacts. I sat down with Neil Pelkey, professor of environmental science, to ask some questions regarding the drilling.
Recently in Pennsylvania there has been some controversy over the planned and ongoing Marcellus shale drilling. What are the main reasons for the disputes?
In Pennsylvania there are about 80,000 vertical wells for natural gas drilling already operating, however there has recently been a development in a new process that has allowed for us to tap into more unproductive black shales: horizontal drilling. After the initial vertical well, there is a horizontal drill for several miles underground coupled with a process known as hydraulic fracking in which the pressure of a fracking fluid breaks the shale, forcing the gas back up the well. The main concern has been for the disposal of the potentially harmful fracking fluid. There is an enormous amount of fluid required, and in some cases the fluid is sent to local sewage treatment plants that may not have the capabilities of handling all the waste and toxic fluids. There is a considerable lack of knowledge for the public and local communities as to the processes for properly handling the fluid and ensuring contaminated water doesn’t make it into the streams and watersheds where it has the potential to harm fish and other wildlife. There is also a lack of monitoring of streams around drilling areas.
There are only about 1,200—1,500 fracking wells currently in Pennsylvania, but many residents are concerned about what will happen when this number increases drastically as is planned.
Do you think non-science POE students are aware of the issues of the Marcellus Shale drilling?
I really don’t know. Certainly science students know, but for other majors it would just depend on how knowledgeable and aware their professors are.
Do you support the drilling? Why or why not?
I don’t think we know enough to support either way. I’m not exactly against it, but I think we should use the precautionary principle by slowing down, seeing the effects, monitoring, and making sure there are no serious health or ecosystem problems such as radon which are difficult if not possible to fix.
Do you think the drilling could lead to a situation comparable to acid mine drainage, a problem the state has been dealing with for years?
I definitely think so. A lot of the chemicals in fracking fluid are potentially more harmful to freshwater streams than acid and there is the potential for long-term effects.
-Joyce Eveleth, ’11, Juniata online Journalist