PA Dept. of Environmental Protection levies largest fine in state history against an oil or gas company

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection last week levied the largest fine in state history against an oil or gas company — more than $1 million in penalties against Chesapeake Energy, the second largest natural gas producer in the country, partly because the Department claims Chesapeake contaminated water supplies in Bradford County, Pa., and partly because of an explosion at a Chesapeake well site in Washington County, Pa., in February.

The fine comes amid ongoing controversy about the development of the Marcellus Shale formation that stretches across the western part of the state. One of the largest reservoirs of natural gas in the world, the Marcellus Shale provides Pennsylvania with significant economic benefits, even as it offers the country important energy production possibilities. But to access the natural gas, oil and gas companies have to use a process known as hydraulic fracturing — a process that poses some environmental risk. About that, local opponents say: “Don’t frack with our water!

Opponents of the mining technique of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” fear the contamination of water supplies, worried it will forever ruin small communities in the stampede of billion-dollar outsider energy corporations to make a quick buck.

Industry experts say the environmental impact neither has been nor will be as severe as opponents like to claim.

Chesapeake and the DEP have done sampling. … What we’re seeing is any environmental impact has been minimal,” hydrologist David Yoxtheimer said in a Washington Times article.

At a forum at the Carnegie Science Center last week, EQT senior vice president Lindell Bridges said the environmental risk of hydraulic fracturing is very small:

Bridges said that additional casings placed around the well’s pipeline are intended to prevent chemicals and fracking fluids from entering the aquifer. He said a “minimal” amount of chemicals is used in the fracking process.

“We are trying to fine-tune our fracking process in any way that we can,” Bridges said. “Frankly, it’s economic. The fewer chemicals needed to be used in the process the better.”

Bridges is right. Water and sand make up 98 percent of hydraulic fracturing fluid. All other chemicals amount to no more than 2 percent of the fluid. And according to the Ground Water Protection Council, the potential for fracking in deep shale natural gas and oil wells to impact groundwater is extremely remote, as low as one in 200 million.

So, it’s possible Chesapeake deserved the fine it received from the Pennsylvania DEP, but it’s still unreasonable for opponents to wish away fracking — and not merely because of jobs, although those numbers are nothing to sneeze at (50,000 new jobs in 2009 alone).

The Marcellus Shale conservatively contains 168 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, but the figure might be as high as 516 trillion cubic feet, according to Terry Engelder, professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, and Gary Lash, a professor at the State University of New York. America (U.S., Canada and Mexico) currently produces roughly 30 trillion cubic feet of gas annually. Sophisticated horizontal drilling technologies, combined with hydraulic fracturing, could enable the recovery of 50 trillion cubic feet of gas just from the Marcellus.

Plus, natural gas as an energy resource really can’t be beat: According to the United States Geological Survey, it burns cleanly and emits the lowest amount of carbon dioxide per calorie of any fossil fuel.