By Tanya Dierolf, Choose Clean Water Coalition
Love him or hate him, there’s no arguing that Stephen Colbert can grab a headline. Recently he’s had a lot to say about environmental protection, energy and water. Last week he reported on the Pegasus Pipeline Spill in Arkansas and reminded us that what’s “out of sight” and “out of mind” might still be in our drinking water. Those of us in Pennsylvania familiar with Talisman Terry have yet to forget his exposé on the children’s coloring book that attempts to teach kids about hydraulic fracturing through the expertise of a friendly Frackasaurus. This leaves me wondering if Colbert might ask Congressman Matt Cartwright about his legislative attempts to apply stricter federal protections to oil and gas development when the Pennsylvania Congressman appears on Stephen’s “Better Know a District” segment in early May.
In March 2013, Congressman Cartwright (PA-17) introduced the “Focused Reduction of Effluence and Stormwater runoff through Hydrofracking Environmental Regulation Act” or FRESHER act. Because of expanding development of oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania and exploration, construction, and operations in almost 30 other states, Mr. Cartwright introduced legislation aimed at fixing a federal Clean Water Act loophole to control stormwater runoff from for oil and gas operations. Under the Clean Water Act, industrial facilities are required to obtain a permit to discharge stormwater from their sites and develop “Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plans” if disturbing more than one acre of land. However, Congress exempted oil and gas operations from both of these requirements. By closing the loophole, the FRESHER Act would provide for stronger oversight as both regulators and the public would be aware of industry plans to control pollution. The bill would also require a federal study of stormwater impacts in areas that might be contaminated by stormwater runoff pollution from oil and gas operations.
Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Many of us working in the Chesapeake Bay watershed are often asked about the impacts that increasing natural gas activity may have on our local waters and the larger Chesapeake Bay cleanup. Considering the ongoing challenges we have with sediment impacts to our local waterways in Pennsylvania and West Virginia and the pollution limits we now have in place to bring the Bay back to health, many are asking how we quantify these impacts. In addition to increased sediment pollution largely carried by stormwater runoff, others are also asking what impact a change in our land use might have as we convert farm fields and forests to well pads. Furthermore, many are asking about roads and pipelines and cumulative impacts. All good questions – and these are just related to natural gas development and its relationship to existing pollution limits and cleanup plans. There are a host of additional questions being asked about drinking water, emissions, groundwater contamination, methane migration, and health and safety.
Mapping a Better Picture
To get an idea of the impacts of the oil and gas industry in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, we turned to our colleagues at the FracTracker Alliance. FracTracker is committed to working with partners – citizens, organizations, and institutions – in a quest for objective, helpful information to perpetuate awareness and support actions that protect public health, the environment, and socioeconomic well-being. FracTracker collects, interprets and shares data through a website and mapping tool. When it came time to understand impacts, we asked for and received some numbers.
In the portion of Pennsylvania that has waterways draining to the Chesapeake Bay, there have been 5,137 oil and gas wells drilled since 2005*. This number includes both conventional and unconventional wells and vertical and horizontal wells (see map on right). Pennsylvania defines an “unconventional well” as one that is drilled into an unconventional formation, which is defined as a geologic shale formation between the base of the Elk Sandstone or its geologic equivalent where natural gas generally cannot be produced except by horizontal or vertical well bores stimulated by hydraulic fracturing. In short, the definition does include wells drilled within the Marcellus Shale formation. We are continuing to work with FracTracker to obtain similar information on West Virginia.
I don’t want to leave the impression that oil and gas development, specifically gas development because of hydraulic fracturing, is an unregulated industry. For example, Pennsylvania already requires erosion & sediment permits for activities involving earth disturbance activities over five acres. I’m also not attempting to get into the patchwork of state-by-state regulations of the oil and gas industry, but Congressman Cartwright’s legislation would ensure that oil and gas companies have stormwater-related permits and pollution prevention plans in place prior to well pad development. The lack of oversight and permitting represents a significant threat to our waterways in places without adequate accountability mechanisms. It’s a fresh opportunity to address an ongoing challenge. We hope Mr. Colbert might just ask Mr. Cartwright about his efforts as we get to know PA’s 17th district. We think he might just say the FRESHER Act is good for his Congressional district and the region.
*For those who prefer to read statistics in a table format, see below:
Number of PA Drilled Wells in Chesapeake Basin 1/1/05 – 3/20/13