Pennsylvania’s 200-year history of coal mining has left a legacy of polluted waterways that remains one of the state’s greatest environmental challenges. More than 250,000 abandoned surface mines, many containing acidic water-filled pits, scar Pennsylvania’s landscape.
Acidic drainage from these abandoned mines — called acid mine drainage or AMD — often has a pH below 5.0, which leaches heavy metals from surrounding rocks and kills fish and other aquatic species in its path.
AMD from historic coal mining has rendered more than 2,400 miles of Pennsylvania’s streams and waterways unusable and contaminated untold numbers of household drinking water wells. While the state spends about $19 million annually on abandoned mine reclamation, this modest effort is dwarfed by the magnitude of the environmental problem, which some estimate will cost $50 billion to fix.
To date, relatively few AMD areas have been remediated, because of cost, potential liability and a lack of meaningful economic incentives. But Marcellus Shale brings an exciting opportunity to finally tackle the state’s most intractable environmental problem.
Given the enduring environmental harm caused by Pennsylvania’s last energy extraction boom, there is understandable concern about the long-term environmental impact of natural gas development in the Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation extending across two-thirds of Pennsylvania.
The development of natural gas reserves trapped within this formation — the vestige of an ancient sea floor — requires copious amounts of water to hydraulically fracture the shale and liberate the gas trapped within. Each natural gas well must be hydraulically fractured by horizontal drilling followed by pressurized injection of from 1,000,000 to 6,000,000 gallons of water, mixed with sand and other chemicals. The injection of this mixture under high pressure horizontally fractures the tight shale formation, releasing the natural gas entrained within.
Because many current and future Marcellus Shale wells are in close proximity to AMD areas, there is a unique opportunity to beneficially use these acid waters for hydraulic fracturing, solving two problems simultaneously. If the right mix of legal and economic incentives can be engrafted on the current regulatory program, the Marcellus Shale could represent not just an opportunity to secure a dependable supply of cleaner-burning fuel but also the promise of lasting improvement to Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers.
However, existing laws do not provide enough protection against liability under the Clean Streams Law for natural gas drillers to use AMD for frack water. Also, because Pennsylvania is one of only a few states that do not charge a severance fee for natural gas extraction, there is no stable funding source to encourage AMD abatement projects in conjunction with natural gas extraction.
In the absence of an impact fee to capture a portion of the $16 million each natural gas well is expected to generate during its 10- to 20-year lifetime, the external costs of thousands of new gas wells — in the form of road repairs, water supply impacts, emergency and social services, municipal development approvals and school district enrollments — will be borne by local taxpayers.
Recent efforts in Harrisburg could help to encourage the use of AMD as a resource for hydraulic fracturing. In July, Gov. Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission published its much-anticipated report. Among the many recommendations was the proposal of legislation to encourage reuse of AMD for natural gas development.
The beneficial reuse of AMD also is part of a bill sponsored by state Sen. Joseph Scarnati, which was voted out of the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee on June 14. The bill would impose an impact fee on natural gas drillers of about $160,000 per well, spread through 10 years.
The impact fee would reflect a well’s declining output over time, with the first year of a well’s operation assessed at $40,000, the second year at $30,000, the third year at $20,000 and the fourth through 10th year at $10,000.
Forty percent of the fee would be dedicated to environmental initiatives, including reuse of AMD for frack water. It is estimated that the bill would raise $121.2 million by March 1, and based on current gas prices and production projections, would generate $675 million over five years.
While the broad-brush recommendations of the commission and the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee are steps in the right direction, bold substantive changes to existing law will be required if the Marcellus Shale boom is to be leveraged toward long-term environmental improvement in AMD areas.
Let’s not miss this chance to address one of the state’s most pressing environmental challenges.