A group charged with examining the Marcellus Shale industry in a comprehensive, unbiased manner has made several recommendations regarding the development, distribution and research of natural gas.
The Shale Gas Roundtable released its final report, and any further action is up to industry leaders, lawmakers and environmentalists.
Releasing natural gas from the Marcellus Shale has been lucrative, but controversial. The industry touts the job opportunities and abundance of cleaner, cheaper energy, while environmentalists take issue with fracking and its possible effects on water, land and humans.
The Shale Gas Roundtable was convened in 2011 to explore natural gas development in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“We have six environmental organizations, three college presidents, three foundations, four industry representatives, five government representatives or government officials, and the rest was made up or ordinary citizens that have been active in the community in a variety of ways,” said Roundtable Co-Chair Jim Roddey.
Having such a mix was meant to ensure that any recommendations were fair to all parties involved. Roddey said the group's overall task was not an easy one.
“We looked at the entirety of shale gas and we were a little overwhelmed with the number of issues that were available," he said. "We decided to choose issues we felt would be priorities for lawmakers."
The Roundtable lists four top priorities and recommendations and lays out eight broader suggestions. One of them is to develop an independent research fund that would conduct studies not supported by one particular side of an issue.
Such a fund is needed because current research in this field is — as Co-Chair Jared Cohon put it, “born biased” based on who’s funding it.
“If the industry’s funding it, environmental groups will attack it; if environmental groups are funding it, industry groups will attack it," said Cohon, who is also president emeritus of Carnegie Mellon University. "What we need is a fund that overcomes this by having balanced funding, funding from multiple sectors so no one can accuse it of being biased by virtue of its funding source."
The Roundtable is also recommending lawmakers modernize the 1961 Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Conservation Law, which hasn’t been updated since its passage.
“1961 is a long time ago for any piece of legislation, but we know it’s hard to legislate in this area because it’s so controversial, nevertheless it really has to be looked at,” Cohon said.
The law doesn’t take into account horizontal drilling or any of the modern drilling technologies, because they didn’t exist when it was passed. Plus, what some see as an arbitrary application line was drawn in the bill.
“It’s below the Onandoga Limestone that the law applies, the Utica is covered by the current Conservation Act, the Marcellus Shale is not," said Roundtable Project Manager Ty Gourley. "So not only do we have an act that doesn’t anticipate the technologies of today, it also sets up different rules for different shale layers which, as you can imagine, could cause a lot of problems for the regulators, the environment industry and otherwise.”
Other recommendations include improving water management and protection, developing ways to minimize environmental impacts of infrastructure such as pipelines, and asking the Department of Environmental Protection to provide annual reports on oil and gas activities.
The report will go to a variety of people, including state lawmakers. But Cohon said it’s important to note the recommendations are not mandates, and nobody is required to take action on any of them.
“We stand ready, however, to work with any group that’s interested in implementation, and indeed we have reached out to such groups," Cohon said. "We briefed leadership of the state legislature on these, specifically with an emphasis with those recommendations that require legislation.”
The group also met with Gov. Tom Corbett about the recommendations. So far, the co-chairs say the report has been well-received.
They added one of the group's unique facets was its diverse makeup. Though members differ on ideological levels, all agreed that the development of Marcellus Shale presents big economic opportunities for the state, but has to be done in a way that protects the environment and public health.
The full report can be found here.