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Marcellus Shale Natural Gas: What the ‘Gold Rush’ Means for Us

Posted: June 27, 2011

The Marcellus Shale natural gas boom that is affecting so much of Pennsylvania isn’t coming to our area. You won’t see well-drilling rigs or tanker trucks full of water on our highways, or pick-up trucks with Texas and Oklahoma license plates in our parking lots. Why not? There’s no Marcellus in south-central and southeast Pennsylvania. And who is Marcellus, anyway? Marcellus is the name of a geologic formation – shale that underlies a good portion of northern and western PA and that is full of natural gas.

Geologists and energy companies have known about Marcellus for a long time, but until recently there was no cost-effective way to get at it.  Now, thanks to a horizontal drilling technology that uses hydro-fracturing, the natural gas is accessible at costs that clearly make sense for the companies extracting it.   A few numbers from the DEP Bureau of Oil and Gas Management illustrate how quickly the extraction is happening: in 2008 there were 195 Marcellus wells drilled; in 2009, 768 new wells; in 2010, 1386 new wells, and through April of this year 515 wells and 1088 permits issued.  Barring major delays, there will likely be over 2000 wells drilled in 2011.  Hot spots are Lycoming, Tioga, Bradford and Susquehanna counties in the north, and Greene, Fayette, Armstrong, Westmoreland, Butler and Washington in the west – with at least two dozen other counties significantly affected.

What are the impacts on communities in the Marcellus regions and on citizens across Pennsylvania?  That question is being debated at kitchen tables, conference tables, negotiating tables and any other kind of table you can think of, and there are no easy answers.  In fact, the issue is so complex that it helps to break it into components.  There are issues concerning the environment, from water quantity and quality to clear-cutting, surface area disturbance, and air quality just to name a few.  There are issues concerning local infrastructure, such as impact on roads and traffic, and emergency services.  There are socio-economic impacts such as the divide between the newly-wealthy and those left behind, the ability to integrate new populations, the economic benefits for local businesses and the pressure of losing employees to new high-paying jobs in the gas fields.  The list goes on: how to keep new wealth in the region, how to protect tourism or develop new tourism opportunities related to the gas boom, workforce development to train youth for careers in the gas industry, and protecting the vulnerable such as low-income elderly whose rents are doubling and tripling because the demand for housing is so high.

Marcellus Shale is a great topic for debate, because for every perceived negative impact there is a positive one, and vice versa.  And while discussions used to occur mostly in other portions of the state, Marcellus has become a part of our vocabulary too, as we weigh the positive and negative aspects of severance taxes or impact fees, environmental threats, business opportunities, or the leasing of public lands.  How do we begin to understand such a complex issue?  Penn State Extension’s website http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas is a great place to start.  Click on one of the tabs at the top of the page for landowners, businesses, general public, local government, or workforce to get started. 

Check out our publications (see the column on the right of the page).  Here are a few titles that may be of interest:  “Questions Citizens and Local Leaders Should Be Asking”, “Marcellus Shale: What Local Government Officials Need to Know”, “Potential Economic Impacts of Marcellus Shale in PA”, and one of the newest publications, “State Tax Implications of Marcellus Shale: What the Pennsylvania Data Say in 2010”.  You may download these publications directly from the website, or contact your friendly county office of Penn State Extension for a copy.  Penn State Extension offers webinars and presentations on a variety of Marcellus topics as well, and you can subscribe to the free e-newsletter to stay up-to-date. 

When an issue is as controversial and multi-faceted as Marcellus, you need trusted, science-based information.  Penn State Extension offers practical how-to education and problem-solving assistance based on university research.  So spend a little time ‘getting smarter’ about Marcellus Shale, and then pull a chair up to the table and start talking.

Judy Chambers is the Penn State Extension Educator for Economic and Community Development serving the SouthEast Region.  Penn State is committed to affirmative action, equal opportunity, and the diversity of its workforce.  Penn State Extension in Cumberland County is located at 310 Allen Road, Suite 601, Carlisle, PA  17013, phone 717-240-6500, e-mail cumberlandExt@psu.edu.