Marcellus Shale: Challenges and Benefits

The atrium of the Penn State Downtown Theatre Center was standing room only last Wednesday for the first Research Unplugged event of the fall semester, a conversation with Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research co-directors Michael Arthur and Tom Murphy on the economic and environmental impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania.

Tom Murphy opened with the question "Why here? Why now?"

"The geology here is really superior," Murphy noted. He presented data showing that the first six months of gas extraction in Bradford (the highest-performing county in Pennsylvania) has resulted in more than double the yield of a comparable county in Texas where gas companies are drilling into the Barnett shale.

Tapping the gas reserves in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale will have a big impact on the state's economy, he said. "We've been a net importer of energy over the course of time…but the expectation is that by 2013 we'll actually be a net energy exporter."

Murphy explained that yields from the wells are already exceeding early expectations. "Most of these wells are expected to run somewhere between 30 and 50 years...They're looking at the overall yield for those wells at being somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 billion cubic feet of gas over that whole duration of time," he said.

Geoscientist Michael Arthur stepped in to explain the technical steps of extracting gas from the Marcellus Shale, including the controversial process known as hydraulic fracturing—or "fracking. Arthur explained that proper cementing of well shafts is critical to protect groundwater. "As you can imagine," said Murphy, "just statistically, if nothing else—with more trucks, more people, more activity, with an industrial process—there's going to be accidents and we're seeing those occur…That's likely something we're going to see again statistically going forward. But the level of that at this point in time, with the amount development that's occurring, still seems relatively low."

Fielding questions from the audience, Murphy and Arthur touched on a variety of concerns, including where the large volume of wastewater goes, the prospect of a severance tax for the extraction of natural resources, the impact of well construction on highway traffic, and several other issues.

In wrapping up the hour-long discussion, Murphy stressed the importance of proper well construction. "My concern goes back to the integrity of the well as it is being drilled. The way it's being cased—the grouting and the standards that are being used there—that's where my concern is." And, he added, well safety standards are being addressed, among a number of other issues, by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, with more inspectors being added to enforce the state's environmental regulations.

For more about Michael Arthur and Tom Murphy, read on...

Join us Wednesday, October 20, for our next conversation: "The Diabesity Tsunami: Facing the Crisis of Diabetes and Obesity," featuring Associate Professor of Medicine, Robert Gabbay.

Last Updated October 19, 2010