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?

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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.

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