PF&BC: Gas drillers should pay for water

Harrisburg – If no other government officials will step up to
protect the quantity of the state’s precious water resources from
deep-well natural-gas drilling, Pennsylvania Fish & Boat
commissioners declared at their quarterly meeting here in early
October, they will.

The commissioners directed Doug Austen, agency executive
director, and staff to prepare “guidance” for legislation requiring
natural-gas-drilling companies to pay for the millions of gallons
of water they will use and pollute to fracture shale strata deep
underground to release gas.

Who will introduce the legislation in question was not clear,
but commissioners – who expressed dismay that other state agencies
and elected officials don’t seem to be taking threats from gas
drilling into the Marcellus shale formation to Keystone State water
resources seriously – contended they needed to start the
process.

Presently, in the Susquehanna and Delaware River basins,
well-drillers must apply for a permit to withdraw more than 28,000
gallons of water from any stream or lake, but they are not charged
for the water.

In the Allegheny River watershed, there are currently no
restrictions on water withdrawals, but the state Department of
Environmental Protection is reportedly considering imposing the
28,000-gallon restriction statewide.

DEP prohibits well drillers from making massive water
withdrawals from headwater streams and has shut down several
drilling operations for dewatering small streams.

“The commonwealth as a whole needs to be compensated for what we
are losing – in this case it is the water that is being degraded by
these huge withdrawals,” said John Arway, chief of the commission’s
environmental services section. “We’re talking about a water-use
fee, and it is something we should have been doing a long time
ago.”

“It’s high time we should put our heads together and come up
with some sort of legislation,” said Commissioner Sam Concilla, of
Erie.

After a long debate on the subject, Commissioner Richard Czop,
of Philadelphia, agreed, and urged the other commissioners to act.
“Listening to all of this, we sound like beggars,” he said. “We are
a state agency. We should put together a proposal. If there are
regulations that are needed, let’s have our staff put together a
legislative agenda and we’ll push it.”

Commissioners of late have become concerned about a pollution
problem in the Susquehanna River leading to low levels of dissolved
oxygen in places, which is killing young smallmouth bass. For
decades, the Susquehanna had been considered one of the best river
bass fisheries on the planet, but commission officials admit the
fishery is declining.

One of the reasons for the pollution becoming more prominent in
recent years, commission biologists suspect, is reduced flows.
“There is no question in my mind that the Susquehanna is horribly
polluted, and low flow is a big part of it,” said Commissioner Bob
Bachman, of Lancaster. “We just can’t keep saying that it is
getting better when it is not. We need to do something about
it.

“Young bass are being stressed by low water levels,” Bachman
added. “It’s [water withdrawals for deep-well, natural-gas
drilling] making a bad situation worse. We are already seeing the
impact on the health of our fisheries. We are being nibbled to
death by a duck.”

Commission law-enforcement chief Tom Kamerzal pointed out that
water use for fracturing the Marcellus shale layer to extract gas –
as much as 5 million gallons per well – is still not as significant
as state officials had feared. “People saw all those big numbers
and got scared,” he said. “But in reality, they [deep-well gas
drillers] will be using about half of what is used to water golf
courses in the state.

“The Susquehanna delivers 18 million gallons of water to the
Chesapeake Bay every minute – water used to ‘frack’ these gas wells
is just a very small portion of that.”

But the big question, Commissioner Concilla stressed, is how
much water can be taken out of the Susquehanna without changing the
health of the ecosystem. Arway suggested the river may already be
suffering damage because of so much water being withdrawn from its
basin. “It’s all connected – you can’t deal with it one issue at a
time and limit the cumulative water demand on the river,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the state regulatory agencies are dealing with this
one issue at a time.”

The good news about deep-well natural-gas drilling so far,
Kamerzal pointed out, is that the big companies which have begun to
tap the Marcellus shale layer beneath Pennsylvania are acting
responsibly.

“To be honest, most of the Marcellus shale drilling sites are in
the middle of cow pastures far away from streams – they are really
being careful,” he said. “The bigger issues with pollution remains
with the traditional gas and oil well drilling that we have been
dealing with for decades.”

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