Pennsylvania natural gas development experience helps Michigan

MSU Extension educators learning from Pennsylvania’s experiences in dealing with the impacts of expanded natural gas production – lessons that will help MSU’s response to Michigan’s potential for greater oil and gas development.

I visited Penn State University in November 2011 to serve as an external advisory committee member for a large new project of their Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research (MCOR)

Pennsylvania’s Marcellus formation is one of the nation’s most rapidly expanding sources of natural gas from shale formations – over 3,500 drilling permits were issued there during 2011.  Media reports call Pennsylvania the “Saudi Arabia” of non-conventional shale gas production. 

The magnitude of natural gas industry expansion in the state poses environmental, economic and social challenges in many small, rural communities.  To address these issues, Penn State’s Marcellus Matters: Engaging Adults in Science and Energy project will help residents in affected communities better understand the science, engineering and energy policy around natural gas development. 

The controversy surrounding natural gas development can’t be successfully resolved through polarized debate between proponents and opponents about “facts.”  Recognizing this, the Penn State team is using an innovative approach, including a variety of activities to engage adults in the Marcellus region.  For example, a new Community Scientist Program, modeled after Extension’s Master Gardener Program, will engage residents through intensive training on science and science issues, enabling them to work with others in their community.

Another unique effort will use community-based theater performances to help increase understanding of natural gas production risk and uncertainty.  Penn State scientists will also develop computer visualizations to help inform community discussions about the environmental and community changes accompanying natural gas development.

The project team visited a Shell Oil drilling site and a hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operation.  The scale, as you might imagine, is large.  Four closely-spaced wells are drilled on the site, each employing horizontal drilling whereby a vertical well is drilled to depths of 3,000 to 9,000 feet, then directed horizontally a distance of 5,000 feet or more. 

The fracking site was similarly intensive.  Millions of gallons of water and tons of sand are continually transported to the site.  According to the Shell managers, during each 12-hour shift, 75 employees are on-site and 120 vehicles travel in and out.  Five to six segments are fracked during that time, each using a 300,000 gallon mixture of fresh water and produced water from other fracking sites, plus approximately one pound of sand per gallon of water.  Additional chemicals (the controversial components of fracking fluid) are added to the mixture, which is then injected at pressures approaching 10,000 pounds per square inch.

One fact became very clear during the visit – the discussion related to expanded natural gas development is about a lot more than fracking.  Penn State faculty did an excellent job describing the positive impacts (jobs, income, energy availability), negative impacts (environmental risks, housing availability, traffic), and less tangible changes to the social structure and appearance of rural communities.  A very complex set of issues – much more complicated than being “for” or “against.”  These are very important lessons for Michigan should our oil and gas industry expand as Pennsylvania’s has.

For more information about the Penn State project, visit the MCOR web site, http://marcellus.psu.edu/.

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