The discovery and development of the Marcellus shale natural gas deposits has been big news in Pennsylvania and neighboring states for several reasons.
One is the massive energy resource it represents. Another is the jump in jobs it could create. A third is the tax revenue that might be reaped. And one more is the concern that widespread drilling poses for the environment.
That worry covers a range of issues, but a major one to catch the eye of the Environmental Protection Agency is "fracking," the hydraulic fracturing technology that breaks the rock deep in the ground to release the gas. The process injects millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals and sand under great pressure into a gas well to crack the shale. How should drillers best dispose of this water?
While fracking has been used for decades at shallow depths, the EPA said last Thursday it would do a $1.9 million study of the potential adverse effects of the process at a mile or more underground. The EPA wants to gauge the impact on water quality and public health -- and that makes this money well spent.
In Pennsylvania alone, 2,500 drilling permits were issued by the state for Marcellus shale gas wells between 2007 and 2009, with another 5,000 expected this year. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group, says 1,100 Marcellus shale wells have been drilled so far, as a way to get to some of the estimated 363 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
While the coalition and others in the industry say they are committed to ensuring a safe approach to treatment and disposal of wastewater due to fracking, it's good to know the EPA study will provide an objective, scientific view on how well they are doing.
It's unfortunate the study could take two years to complete, but Americans should be willing to sacrifice speed for thoroughness on a question that involves community health.