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Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Connecting some dots on gas drilling

To get the true picture of how to responsibly produce natural gas, it’s essential to connect the dots. Regulations represent one class of dots. Industry practice is another. But some of the most important dots are essentially invisible – at least so far – in Pennsylvania. They are the dots that represent the cumulative impacts of gas drilling. We know that they will be huge here, but how do we bring the missing dots into view, and how do we then connect them all?

I’ve heard industry leaders talk about their need to assess local and cumulative impacts, and to engage in landscape- and watershed-level planning. Last year, the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board released a report calling for better planning, data gathering, and commitments to best management practices and continuous improvement. All of that is part of the answer.

Bringing all the dots into view is about transparency, data, and process. Best management practices – from planning to drilling to pipeline-laying to site reclamation - are an essential starting point. They must be accepted - and actually practiced - by the industry. But they are only the beginning. Practices must evolve as knowledge about impacts grows. That knowledge must be driven by data – gathered from monitoring activities in the field. Practices must be judged against data-driven standards that are developed – and agreed to by all stakeholders - to evaluate what works, and what can be improved. Practices and standards are then adjusted, and the virtuous cycle continues, at least in theory.

How can such a process be built? Important work is being done in Pennsylvania.

Penn State University has developed an excellent on-line resource: a Marcellus Shale Electronic Field Guide presenting a comprehensive suite of land management information and tools. The Guide prominently features work done by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), presenting DCNR’s BMPs and a sample state forest lease as models.

An important source of data and information will also be coming soon from DCNR. In 2010, while I was Secretary of the agency, DCNR designed a comprehensive monitoring program to gather data on the impacts of natural gas drilling on state forest lands. Acres of forest cleared for gas development, water, air, and soil quality, recreational and social impacts, and more will be monitored and assessed. The $2 million+ program is funded by royalty payments from state forest gas leases, and is an essential investment in preserving Pennsylvania’s natural heritage and Pennsylvania’s economy.

Last year, under the leadership of Secretary Rick Allan, the program was fully staffed with 15 positions, and field work commenced. DCNR has committed to adapting its BMPs based on the data gathered. They should be the basis of statewide standards. And in its most recent annual audit of the state forest’s sustainable management certification, DCNR reported that a full monitoring report will be posted for public view on DCNR’s website. That report – and all future reports from the program - will be essential in informing the ongoing process of connecting gas drilling’s dots in Pennsylvania.


  1. On an A to F scale, how would you rate the natural gas industry in the last year or so as far as commitment to enhancing best practices for environmental safety and maintaining regulatory compliance?

  2. Mike, I'm not comfortable assigning grades. As you know, the industry has been cited for over 3,300 violations of PA regs in the last 4 years. Those figures, as all such statistics, are open to interpretation. See the link to the industry view of those numbers in the Energy Dimensions article I posted on April 2. I have heard industry leaders personally state their commitment to BMPs and compliance. I know of important BMP work that is being done by some companies. So it is clear that work on both fronts by at least some companies in the industry is ongoing and genuine. It is also clear that the work is incomplete.