Thursday, February 10, 2011

Former PA Official: Beware of Drilling's Pollution and "Shameful" Political Influence

As Maryland considers whether to allow hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, it should avoid the environmental damage that Pennsylvania has suffered and the “shameful” example of the drilling industry’s political influence in that state, a former top Pennsylvania official told a Maryland General Assembly committee today.

John Quigley, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (photo above), told the Maryland House Environmental Matters Committee that natural gas also has environmental benefits, such as creating less air pollution and mercury contamination than coal.

But he cautioned Maryland lawmakers that there are “ample reasons” to be concerned about water pollution and other serious problems from drilling. The wastewater produced by drilling “is hundreds of times saltier than seawater,” Quigley said. “And it can come back with naturally occurring radioactive material.”

He added: “We have already experienced major problems with natural gas migration and contamination of drinking wells… We have had well blow-outs and fire… We have gas bubbling into the Susquehanna River, to everyone’s surprise.”

“A go-slow approach is justifiable,” Quigley advised Maryland officials. “New York is taking a pause” to study hydraulic fracturing before allowing large-scale drilling, he noted. “Take as much time as you can to understand these issues.”

While thousands of natural gas wells have been drilled to the north and south of Maryland over the last five years, not a single well has been drilled in Maryland in 15 years, even though Western Maryland sits atop the same gas-rich Marcellus shale formation at Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Two companies have applied to start hydraulic fracturing in Maryland.The Maryland Department of the Environment is considering these permits as state lawmakers discuss what -- if anything -- the state can do to protect streams and drinking water.

Across Garrett County in Western Maryland, more than 500 landowners have signed agreements with drilling companies to give them rights to drill under about a quarter of the land in the county, according to county records.

John Griffin, Secretary of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, told the legislative committee yesterday that the O’Malley Administration is trying to be cautious about drilling.

“We have been operating using the precautionary principal,” Griffin told the committee. “The burden of proof that no harm will occur should be on those who are proposing it…and they should be held liable for the cost of remediation, not the public at large.”

State Del. Maggie McIntosh of Baltimore, the chairwoman of the committee, said that she thinks Maryland should also be careful and study the examples from Pennsylvania. “If we are going to have drilling in Maryland, we want to do it right,” McIntosh said. “We don’t want to have the experiences the other states have had with their environment and drinking water.”

State Delegate Anthony J. O’Donnell, who represents Calvert and St. Mary’s Counties, questioned the
“incendiary” words that Quigley used to describe the political influence of the drilling industry in Pennsylvania.

Quigley used the term in his written testimony to the committee yesterday to describe the lobbying efforts that have kept Pennsylvania as the only gas-producing state in the U.S. that does not impose a tax on gas extraction.

“Lobbying isn’t necessarily a bad thing,” O’Donnell noted.

Quigley replied that “shameful” is the right word. “It happens to be the truth….The industry employs a lot of lobbyists, and has documented spending in the millions of dollars….they spend a lot of money in campaign contributions, to influence the general assembly…. They have been able to buy a big microphone.”

Across Pennsylvania, another 100,000 or more wells are expected to be drilled over the next several years, Quigley said. About a third of Pennsylvania’s state forests – about 700,000 of 2.2 million acres – are under lease to drilling companies.

The money raised from leasing out this state land should have gone back to conservation in Pennsylvania, but has not, Quigley said. Over a half a billion dollars from drilling companies have gone to the state as compensation for using state land, and this money should have gone into the conservation of state land, Quigley said. Instead, it has been diverted into the state’s general fund, Quigley said.

“The people of Maryland should consider what is happening in Pennsylvania as a cautionary tale,” Quigley told the committee.

No companies have applied for permits in Maryland’s state forests. Unlike in Pennsylvania, Maryland owns the mineral rights under its state forests, and so has more control over what happens on and beneath the land, according to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

By Tom Pelton

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