WILLIAMSPORT - With up to 250 gas wells expected to be drilled in Lycoming County by this summer, the state's Bureau of Oil and Gas Management plans to open a satellite office in Williamsport, according to Robert Yowell, regional director of the northcentral regional office of the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Yowell was among those on a Lycoming College panel this past week who took up environmental issues surrounding drilling into the Marcellus Shale to extract natural gas.
The bureau is under the DEP umbrella and charged with issuing drilling permits and inspecting sites to make sure they comply with agency regulations, Yowell said. It has had offices previously only in Pittsburgh and Meadville.
By this summer, there should be 17 staff members in the office, as well as another 20 staff in the western Pennsylvania offices, he said.
Yowell predicted up to 250 wells would be drilled in Lycoming County by this summer.
"It's going to be a busy summer," he said.
"Gas drilling is going to happen. The country needs the resources, but let's do it right and not make the same mistakes we made in the past," said Dr. Mel Zimmerman, of Lycoming College's Clean Water Institute, one of two event sponsors. The other was the Susquehanna Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
There are many issues people need to consider when it comes to natural gas exploration, Penn State Cooperative Extension educator Thomas Murphy said.
People must consider its impact on wildlife, forests, fresh water and scenic vistas, he said.
The economic benefits could be extensive, with an estimated 363 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas thought to be trapped in the shale, he said.
Although natural gas prices have fallen from $14 per 1,000 cubic feet to about $4.50 per 1,000 cubic feet, the gas industry is still focused on developing the shale, Murphy said.
The state is taking interest in developing the Marcellus Shale seriously, said Yowell.
The DEP's main concern with natural gas development is how the industry will dispose of water used to free the gas trapped in the shale, Yowell said.
Called "hydrofracturing" or "fracing," the process involves pumping millions of gallons of pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into the ground to pulverize the shale and release the gas trapped within it.
The frac water that returns to the surface has a high concentration of salt in it, Yowell said. That water cannot be treated at conventional wastewater treatment plants, he said.
Frac water must be pre-treated before it can be sent to a wastewater treatment plant, said L. Richard Adams, an engineer contracted to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, a multi-state agency charged with regulating water consumption.
Most of the pre-treatment process is easy, but for the salt to be removed it must be desalinated though a distilling process that is expensive and requires a lot of energy, Adams said.
The cheapest way to dispose of the water is through deep well injection, in which the water is pumped deep within the ground, he said.
Adams discussed the commission's new regulations, which were designed to both streamline the permitting process for gas drilling and put more safeguards in place so that the industry's water consumption does not impact aquatic habitat.
The danger of that occurring in a stream is particularly high during low flow periods, Adams said.
"The water needs of the industry are tremendous," he said. "It can be a problem if they take too much at the wrong time of year."
Even at its peak, the gas industry is by no means the top water consumer in the state, Adams said.
Gas exploration would only be ranked fourth behind public water systems, power plants and recreation, such as golf course irrigation, he said.
Rebecca L. Dunlap, project manager of the West Branch Susquehanna Restoration Initiative, said a lot can be learned from the state's history of natural resource extraction, which dates to the 1800s with the lumber industry.
During the 1800s, the region became the world's number-one lumber region, but by the 1920s the forests that fed that industry were gone, she said.
After lumbering, there was a coal industry boom that Pennsylvania has a right to be proud of, Dunlap said. However, the lack of regulations resulted in "environmental injustices" such as acid mine drainage that continues to this day, she said.
The event was the first of two forums sponsored by the organizations. At 7 p.m. March 11, representatives of the natural gas industry will be on hand at the college to talk about what they are doing to extract natural gas in a way that will not harm the environment.