Fuels Rush In | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Fuels Rush In

Let's look on the bright side of BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: At least it isn't happening in, like, your neighbor's wading pool. The next time we have a drilling disaster, we may not be so lucky.

Exhibit A: Last week, a natural-gas drilling rig in Clearfield County suffered a blowout "which could have been a catastrophic incident," said a statement by John Hanger, head of the Department of Environmental Protection. "[G]as was shooting into the sky, creating a significant fire hazard." The gas company involved -- an offshoot of Enron (?!?) -- has suspended drilling pending further investigation.

 According to the DEP, the well's blowout preventer may have failed. This is, of course, the same device that failed on BP's Deepwater Horizon rig.

The gas industry assures that all is well. "This incident was contained completely within the site, and was totally under the control of emergency responders," says Kathryn Klaber, head of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group. Wells are only vulnerable to such mishaps in the early stage of drilling, she notes, and are rare even then. "And even in this rare instance, there were no injuries." 

But of course, Clearfield County is largely rural: The well's nearest neighbors were trees in a state forest. A future accident could strike much closer to home.

The Clearfield well is one of a growing number of Pennsylvania sites exploiting the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock containing huge natural-gas reserves a mile underground. Once wells reach that layer, they drill horizontally, releasing gas by fracturing the rock with water and other chemicals. 

The drilling rigs themselves, though, only take up a few acres on the surface, and can be put almost anywhere -- including urban neighborhoods.

In fact, within Pittsburgh's city limits, a "couple hundred" property owners have signed leases already, says Ned Mulcahy of Three Rivers Waterkeepers, an environmental group. Among them are several dozen landowners in Lincoln Place alone.

The vast majority of those folks wouldn't even notice gas being extracted a mile below their property. But the drilling equipment -- including water-retention ponds and other infrastructure -- has to go somewhere. What would happen if a Clearfield-style blowout took place in Pittsburgh's 31st ward? 

For starters, "We'd have been evacuating five elementary schools, two middle schools and Carrick High School," says Dan Volz, of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Healthy Environments and Communities. "And I don't believe emergency-management agencies have plans for dealing with these situations." (This week, in fact, another gas-well explosion took place in West Virginia -- an explosion volunteer firefighters had no training for.)

And explosions are just a short-term threat, Volz says. The water used to break up the shale contains carcinogens that could taint local water supplies, he notes. Vapors released by the well can befoul the atmosphere.

Drilling in Pittsburgh is years away, so a lack of emergency preparedness isn't a pressing concern. But City Councilor Doug Shields, whose district includes Lincoln Place, worries that "municipalities are in no position to take this on.

"Are we going to have the ability to stop drilling in the city?" Shields asks. State law is unclear. Meanwhile, "I've got land men in my district going door to door, handing out checks, and I don't even know who they are." 

Trying to ban drilling, though, would likely mean a fight. And "[a] lot of municipalities are concerned about legal costs," says Emily Collins, a supervising attorney at Pitt's Environmental Law Clinic. "There are large monetary interests involved here."

Politicians are trying to make up lost ground. State Rep. Camille George, a Democrat whose district includes Clearfield County, is pushing legislation to raise fines on negligent drillers, and provide more environmental protection. Pittsburgh City Councilor Patrick Dowd, whose Lawrenceville district is increasingly active with gas-leasing agents, plans to offer new zoning measures this summer.

"The city has done very little with this," Dowd says, and there's only so much it can do: Dowd, who sits on the city's Water Authority, notes that the city draws 70 million gallons a day from the Allegheny River. "If something is spilled from a drilling site upstream, we have to think about it."

It bears repeating that gas accidents are rare. But while "ninety-nine out of a hundred operators can be responsible," Rep. George says, "one bad one can ruin a community."

And hey -- deep-sea oil platforms don't explode every day either. Maybe that's supposed to be part of the bright side, too. 

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