A public forum on Marcellus Shale gas drilling drew about 100 people Thursday including a fracking opponent who was almost escorted out of the room when he began challenging panelists.
“This is my fifth (forum) and they’re all the same. They keep putting out this message that everything’s fine and it’s not. It’s a mess,” said Michael Shaw, a Kutztown resident active in a group called Gastruth.org.
Shaw was a loud dissenting voice among a standing-room only crowd at
Republican hosted the event, which featured five panelists who each offered reassuring views that Pennsylvania’s rich underground energy source can be safely harvested without significant harm to the environment.
Simmons took on one of the most controversial issues about gas drilling - taxation.
“I don’t have a problem imposing a fee on the extraction,” he said. “We need to find a competitive balance where these companies pay for what they’re doing but we’re not shutting them down.”
Simmons said he would support either an impact fee “that would stay in the local community” or an extraction fee that could be used to offset Pennsylvania’s personal income tax.
The panel spent two hours answering dozens of questions on drilling safety, environmental impact and economic development.
Dan Lapato of the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection said 1,400 citations for violations and a recent $1 million fine slapped on Chesapeake Energy show the agency is serious about keeping the burgeoning gas drilling industry in check.
“We are tasked with protecting the public and the environment and we take that seriously,” he said.
But Shaw, the vocal fracking opponent, got riled when Lapato said that DEP has not found fluid from hydraulic fracturing in any bodies of water in the state.
“I just came from one (pond) they drained the water out of in Leroy Township, Bradford County,” Shaw, sounding angry, said to the panelist.
Members of Simmons’ staff tried to get Shaw to leave the room after the outburst. A police officer later arrived, apparently on standby to quell any further disruptions. There were none.
Shaw was referring to an April 21 well blowout that sent drilling wastewater spilling onto a farm field, into a small stream and Towanda Creek. News reports quoted state regulators as saying fracking fluid swamped the well pad and overflowed.
Panelist Tom Murphy of Penn State University called the blowout a “very unusual” and “catastrophic” event, but added that liners and containment systems to catch surface spills are constantly being improved.
“This extraction process will keep getting better over time. We see new rules and regulations. We see new processes being put in place,” he added.
Ninety minutes into the forum, the audience continued to pose environmental questions. One resident asked, What are drillers and the state prepared to do in case of a cataclysmic event such as contamination of a watershed?
Gas drillers are responsible for any cleanup and restoration, Lapato said.
As Pennsylvania’s gas drilling industry evolves, the key for residents will be to assess their risk tolerance, said Anthony Bartolomeo, a member of Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.
As regulations are developed, residents must “set how safe is safe and how clean is clean,” he said.
“Like oil to Texas, Marcellus shale is a tremendous economic opportunity for the Commonwealth,” said Stephanie Wissman of the Pa. Chamber of Business and Industry. “We can’t afford to mess this up.”
After the forum, Center Valley resident Mary Ann Vought said the emergence of gas drilling in Potter County, where her son lives, “has given the whole area hope economically.”
But Tara Craig of Allentown left the forum dissatisfied with what she heard.
“I think the whole truth isn’t being told. They just skimmed the surface to appease people rather than address the issues,” she said.
DEP is proposing an overhaul of the state's Oil and Gas Act to protect water in Pennsylvania.