Marcellus Shale: The Trillion Dollar Question

We’re sitting on what may be the second-largest natural-gas field in the world—but is it possible to improve our air and water while making the most of the enormous economic opportunity?

(page 1 of 4)


Photos by Martha Rial

As gasoline costs skyrocket and the search for clean alternatives gains urgency, the extraction of the region’s massive supply of natural gas may offer a just-in-time solution to the country’s growing energy needs. Dubbed a “super-giant” find by energy companies, Marcellus Shale is now thought to contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Even if only 10 percent of that supply is captured, the result would supply the natural gas needs of the U.S. for two years. Drillers say local wells can be expected to produce for the next quarter-century, bringing a steady stream of investment and jobs into western Pennsylvania.

Though first discovered in 1839 near Marcellus, N.Y., the energy embedded in a layer of thick black shale was largely undisturbed until the 21st century. That’s when a new technique called hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drills became widely deployed. Forcing large volumes of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals up to 8,000 feet into the earth, “fracking” allows the trapped gas to escape into a well.

However, air pollutants, wastewater and toxins from the process can escape, too. And because Pennsylvania has more miles of rivers and streams than any other state besides Alaska, the potential effect of Marcellus extraction on our water, wildlife and forests is as significant as its economic advantages. That has galvanized drilling opponents to demand stringent regulations on drilling procedures, locations, wastewater treatment and work site traffic. Citing the damage wrought by 20th-century coal mines and steel mills, they argue that communities must be more vigilant in protecting their shared resources.   

Throughout the past five years, local Marcellus activity has gone from blip to boom. Washington County has seen more than 300 wells drilled since 2007; Greene County, 175-plus. Major energy companies are rushing to stake their claims. In June, Exxon made its second purchase in the region, paying $1.7 billion to explore 317,000 acres. Debate on state involvement—from environmental regulations to severance taxes—preoccupies Harrisburg. The natural-gas gold rush has arrived—but is the Pittsburgh region ready?

Bobby Vagt, president of the Heinz Endowments, views the Marcellus debate from two perspectives. Before joining the $1.4 billion regional foundation in 2008, he spent nearly 20 years as an executive in the oil- and gas-exploration industry. He believes that the sheer size of the resource, along with the widespread use of fracking, makes its impact dramatically different than other energy finds.

“Assuming the shale is developed, people will be drilling here for 25 years,” he notes. “The whole nature of the business has been changed. You’re here for the long term, so your relationship with people and suppliers and governments is important. The question now is not discovering the resource; it’s how cheaply and effectively you can drill a well. That has to be tempered with a focus on the environment.”

In some cases, Vagt says, environmental-protection and cost efficiencies will converge. He cites the example of on-site treatment of wastewater, which can save more than $330,000 per well and millions of gallons of water. But he cautions that negotiations on those solutions must start now.

“It’s not as simple as getting like-minded people together, even those who recognize that the issue must be dealt with,” he says. “And the difficulty of resolving the problems grows exponentially with the passage of time. The environment has to be protected and can’t be overrun by the sheer enormity of the dollars. We can solve this the right way. The question is: Who will we anoint to carry this out?”

Pittsburgh magazine asked five regional leaders with deep experience on all sides of the issue to weigh in on the Trillion-Dollar Question: How do we improve our air and water while making the most of this enormous economic opportunity?

Their responses frame a debate that may define the region’s 21st-century history.

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

The 412

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.
8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

8 Things You Might Not Know About Kennywood’s Jack Rabbit

When you compare what it cost to build the coaster in 1920 to what it would cost today, it's obvious Kennywood's owners got their money's worth.
Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

Second New Restaurant Moving into Union Trust Building

The upscale seafood eatery is expected to open in late 2016 or early 2017.
Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Local Filmmaker Celebrates Pittsburgh Food

Artist David Bernabo creates a series of films that track various aspects of Pittsburgh's food culture.

Sign Up for the 412 e-Newsletter

 

Our new, daily e-newsletter is curated by the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine and is designed to give you the very best Pittsburgh has to offer -- delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign me up!
* Email
 First Name
 Last Name
  * = Required Field
 
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

Hot Reads

Best Restaurants 2016

Best Restaurants 2016

Which 33 Pittsburgh-area establishments did our independent Restaurant Review Panel include among its top picks this year? Find them here.
Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

Six Pittsburgh Chefs Who Are Outstanding in Their Field

In addition to awarding Best Restaurant honors this year, our Independent Restaurant Review Panel also voted to recognize six chefs for their contributions to Pittsburgh’s culinary community in 2015.
Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

Citizen Artist: Vanessa German

German blends a collage of community activism and soul-searching artistry.
PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

PittGirl to Wooers: ‘Not Today Satan, Not Today’

It only takes one person, one jagoff, one childish, attention-seeking, discourteous jerk to send a woo through PNC Park.
Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Daytripping: Canonsburg is a City of Antiques

Nearby Canonsburg is a rare find for antiques collectors.
U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

U.S. Open at Oakmont: Will The Town Finally Be a Player?

The U.S. Open is returning to Oakmont — and unlike previous tournaments, this one could make the community a vital part of the action.
Edit Module

Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow Tags

On the Blogs


5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

5 Reasons PyroFest Will Light Up Your Memorial Day Weekend

PyroFest will also include live music, food, a Kids Zone and more.

Comments


Pittsburgh, only cooler
PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

PittGirl: How You Should Grade A Squishy Tongue

Kennywood Park opens soon and new this season is the return of the famed whale at the entrance of Noah’s Ark. In the name of science, PittGirl paid an early visit to test the squishiness quotient of the whale's all-important tongue.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

Richard DeShantz Plans Two New Restaurants at Salt of the Earth Building

DeShantz owns three other Pittsburgh restaurants and is about to open a fourth.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The Best 6 Places to Get a Cup of Tea in Pittsburgh

The quiet rise of Pittsburgh's tea scene gives us a few favorite gems.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

Highmark Stadium Pub Wants Your Attention

The in-house tavern at the Riverhounds' home stadium is now welcoming guests during weekdays. But is it worth a dedicated stop?

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

Resurrected Penguins Writing Their Story Their Way

These Penguins have been downright unrecognizable, individually and collectively, on the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

Comments


Style. Design. Goods. Hide your credit card.
Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

Flip the Switch: Industrial-Style Lighting Made in Pittsburgh

An electrician by trade, designer Thomas Verscharen creates custom lighting out of repurposed pieces.

Comments


Sean Collier's Popcorn for Dinner

The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

The X-Men Would've Done Better in Wonderland

Reviews of "X-Men: Apocalypse," "Alice Through the Looking Glass," "A Bigger Splash" and "Love and Friendship."

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Get with the (Wedding) Program

Get with the (Wedding) Program

Have you ever considered making programs for your wedding guests? If not, think again and get creative.

Comments


The latest tips and trends to refresh your home.
A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

A Tiny House that's Big on Energy Savings

Spread out across the city for these upcoming events, including a “Tiny House” exhibit at the Carnegie Science Center displayed by the FIY Network.

Comments


The hottest topics in higher education
Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

Duquesne University to Host Small Business Networking Event

The event will connect hundreds of small business managers and owners and provide useful information to help them take their enterprises to the next level.

Comments