BELLEFONTE - Centre County officials say they have concerns over the large amount of water needed for proposed drilling operations there, along with Clinton and Lycoming counties, but acknowledge the ball is basically out of their court.
Texas-based Anadarko Exploration and Production Co. is seeking a permit to draw a maximum of 4 million gallons of water a day out of two sources in each county.
In Centre County, the sources would be the Foster Joseph Sayers Lake in Liberty Township and a site in Burnside Township. The water would then be trucked to Anadarko's permitted well sites, located throughout the three counties.
Centre County Assistant Planner Sue Hannegan and Senior Planner Matt Milliron sit with a map of proposed gas drilling sites in Centre County. The two are hopeful large amounts of water needed for new drilling sites will not affect the environment.
SCOTT JOHNSON/THE EXPRESS
However, Assistant Planner Sue Hannegan said Tuesday the water would be trucked out only during a two-week period cited in the company's permit application.
"Are we worried about that water? We have no regulatory permitting review," she said. "We get information on those permits. We are concerned about the environment, of course, but there are agencies that are addressing those issues."
Those agencies are the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (which currently has the water use application) and the state Department of Environmental Protection.
She noted the water use requested likely means the company plans vertical wells instead of horizontal wells, which normally require between 1 and 1.5 million gallons.
Senior Planner Matt Milliron said the surface water withdrawals proposed in the county would not likely affect nearby municipal water systems. However, a groundwater withdrawal could have a negative effect.
"In theory, one of these drilling companies could propose withdrawing water from somewhere down in the valley, close to where they're drilling the well... and, yes, I would have a concern, especially if you get into a period of drought... That's what the regulators have to plan for and they would have to consider under a worse-case scenario."
In total, Centre County officials say there are 13 drilling sites active in the Marcellus Shale region in that county, mostly in the rural, northern parts of the county. Those sites cost about $5 million to develop, she said.
In addition, companies have about 1,000 Devonian Shale wells in the county, which are much shallower than the Marcellus wells.
Hannegan noted North Coast has already completed some wells in Burnside Township and is already sending some of that gas to the market.
As far as how much gas is being drawn out of the earth, Hannegan said that is proprietary information and can be held secret. However, Milliron said the company must make that information public to the DEP after five years.
Officials say part of the problem with the fracturing process known as "fracing" of rock needed to extract the natural gas from the Marcellus Shale is that it leads to heavy amounts of contamination - mostly salt brine - and a special water treatment facility is needed to safely return the water to its original watershed.
Hannegan said two companies have proposed private water treatment plants - State College-based Rex Energy in Rush Township and Ohio-based North Coast Energy in Burnside Township - though both proposals are still in their preliminary stages.
Milliron explained the frac water contains a small amount of solids, including a minimal amount of the radioactive element barium, which can be removed through treatment, but dissolved materials like salt cannot be readily removed.
"It's the old 'dilution is the solution to pollution,'" he said. "They're just diluting it back into the river... I know the regulators have to look at all these points and what is the cumulative effect downstream."
Milliron added the companies proposing the wells in Centre County have been very cooperative with the county, but the county remains "a little gun-shy" about these operations, especially with the legacy of abandoned coal mines around the state.
"Let's use that historical perspective and let's look at this industry the same way," he said. "Yes, we need the energy, let's help it, but recognize that it can impact the environment and for probably very few dollars added to the cost of each well, they could protect it. It makes perfect sense to try to."
Hannegan said a case recently heard by the state Supreme Court could have ramifications statewide.
That case, she said, could allow counties to regulate the development of gas wells through sub-division and land development issues. She doesn't expect a decision in that case until March.
Earlier Tuesday, the Centre County commissioners said at their meeting they have no permitting authority over the proposed water withdrawals.
Craig Altemose, director of the Centre County Cooperative Extension, has proposed an energy task force to look at all aspects of energy, including natural gas, but nothing has been finalized yet.