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Communities, Water Sources and Potential Impacts of Shale Gas Development

The extraction of shale gas--natural gas found in deep layers of shale rock formations--is on the rise in many states. Gas drilling companies will likely drill tens of thousands of wells by 2020. The Obama administration's Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future identifies shale gas reserves as an important new energy source as the U.S. transitions from its heavy reliance on oil to a "clean energy future."

Economic benefits and energy independence have been emphasized as positive outcomes. Conversely, opponents have cited negative impacts to the environment, local waters, and the public health, along with heavy demands on government services such as roads, emergency response, schools, and law enforcement. If your community may become involved with shale gas development or other energy extraction activities, careful planning and oversight are critical for preventing potentially negative impacts and for protecting the community, the environment, and local residents' health, safety, and quality of life. To do this, communities need to become knowledgeable about the process.

Not the Gas Wells of the Past

Two new technologies in use for about a decade, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, are making gas extraction from deep rock formations economically feasible. In contrast to the old-style backyard pump jack, shale gas drilling is a large, complex, industrial operation. A shale gas well, for example, requires a site of four to six acres in size. Construction of this well pad site and access roads involves extensive earth moving and surface disturbance.

The drilling rig can sit 70 feet high and be equipped with bright lights for round-the-clock operation. The process involves drilling as far as 10,000 feet or more down to the shale layer, then drilling horizontally into the shale for up to another 6-8,000 feet. Hydraulic fracturing is then employed which entails pumping millions of gallons of a water, sand, and chemical mixture (called frack water) into the well at very high pressure to fracture the rock and release the gas. A portion of the injected frack water flows back up the well, where it is captured and stored in tanks or pits until it can be processed, disposed of, or recycled.

Trucks, tanks, and other equipment on the well pad store water and chemicals. Heavy truck traffic hauls these items to and from the site. Compressor stations and miles of pipelines are installed in the area to move the gas to processing facilities--and to nearby and distant markets.

Potential Impacts from Shale Gas Development

Individuals and communities may realize economic gains as the gas industry builds the drilling infrastructure, out-of-state workers arrive and use local services, some jobs are created, and leaseholders receive payment for the natural gas or use of their land. Costs and challenges also accompany these gains. Wells can produce natural gas for decades and managing the local impacts can go on for a long time, and can include:

  1. Social impacts such as local population changes due to an influx of workers and residents and the effects on housing, schools, law enforcement, and community services; community disruption due to disagreements among lease-holders and surface property owners, neighboring residents, and community members concerned about public health, environmental, safety, and quality of life impacts (e.g. property value, noise and light pollution, industrialization);    
  2. Economic impacts due to drilling operations and the local services required to support the increase in activities and residents. How to pay for added services, impacts on tourism, and impacts on attracting new economic development are also considerations;
  3. Environmental impacts related to water quality and quantity, air quality, waste disposal, forest and wildlife habitat, land and land use, and how these will be prevented, monitored, and corrected;
  4. Infrastructure impacts such as damage to roads and bridges, and demands on water and sewer services;
  5. Public health impacts due to accidents, spills, emissions, and injuries; increased truck traffic and emissions; and potential aquifer depletion or contamination;
  6. Legal and regulatory considerations such as local authority, enforcement capacity, taxing and revenue, evolving case law, and jurisdiction issues.

Communities and Potential Impacts of Shale Gas Development

Although drilling companies may spend years obtaining leasing agreements and rights-of-way from mineral and landowners in an area, drilling activities often get underway so quickly that local officials can be caught off guard. In some states, public notification about gas well development is not required although wells can be drilled as close as 200 feet to an adjacent dwelling. If your community has the potential for shale gas activities, it's important to be aware of the issues and protect against potential risks.

Two important first steps in understanding how to protect your community are to (1) educate yourself about the issues, and (2) contact your state agency that regulates oil and gas drilling to learn what has been permitted in your area. "If you don't see it coming, you won't be prepared, and it can be overwhelming," says Green County, Pennsylvania's County Commissioner Pamela Snyder.  "However, it can be manageable if you stay ahead of the curve." Communities around the country use a variety of approaches to manage, regulate, and prevent drilling.

Task Forces Examine the Issues

Forming a task force, with broad stakeholder participation, can help identify key questions, assess energy development issues, and investigate and recommend options for addressing them. Conditions are different in every community, and addressing the impacts may fall within multiple jurisdictions.

Regulating or Managing Local Drilling Activities

Natural gas development is mostly regulated at the state level. The tools available to local governments to put additional requirements in place may differ in each state. Your town's ability to pass and enforce local ordinances, regulations, or zoning laws, for example, will likely depend on the legislative authority granted to municipalities by your state, as well as legal precedent. Communities have passed local ordinances and laws to address the wide variety of potential impacts, and have instituted permit fees, liability insurance requirements, and best management practices. Local actions that attempt to supersede state law may face court challenges; these cases have been heard in a number of states.

A Moratorium Can Provide Time to Examine the Issues

Many city and county governments have used moratoria as a way to pause gas development activities. This allows time to review options related to well permitting, exploration, and production; to update local ordinances; to amend planning documents and codes; and to gather citizen input.

Developing or Updating Local Planning Documents is Fundamental

Updating or developing a comprehensive plan, official maps, and other planning tools to address potential energy development activities provides the framework for local government actions and a vehicle for addressing land use, environmental or sensitive areas designations, and other relevant concerns.

We Can Learn from Other States and Communities

Communities in southern and western states, where horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have been underway for about a decade, have adopted numerous strategies to handle the impacts. Their experiences, as well as those of eastern states experiencing Marcellus shale drilling, offer many lessons learned. Visiting areas where shale gas wells are in operation to see local impacts for yourself and talking to local residents, in addition to hearing the drilling company's perspective, can provide more complete information about what to expect.

Public Health, Environmental, and Economic Impact Studies are Needed

Few comprehensive studies about shale gas development risks and impacts have been conducted. This raises concerns among many who want more complete assessments before drilling activities move ahead. States such as New York and Maryland have placed a moratorium on drilling in order to conduct such studies.

The Public Needs to be Engaged and Educated

Local citizens will likely want to know about the type of industrial development that may be permitted in their town or near their homes or water supplies. Seek input from local residents about their concerns, and make sure that people are fully aware of what the community may be facing.

Local Self-Governance to Ban Drilling

Instead of trying to regulate or manage shale gas activities, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Mountain Lake Park, Maryland (population 2,500) have adopted ordinances banning shale gas development in their towns. This approach relies on the concept of local self-governance, and boils down to the question of "Who gets to decide about an activity in your community? The local citizens or corporate officials?" says Shireen Parsons with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nonprofit, public interest law firm. CELDF assists communities and municipal governments in moving from "merely regulating corporate harms to preventing those harms by asserting their right to self-government through local lawmaking."

Mountain Lake Park Mayor Leo Martin thinks CELDF has the right idea. "It's our responsibility as local leaders to protect the health and safety of our residents. We see the devastation from hydraulic fracturing in Pennsylvania" he says, "and we don't want it here." Although the CELDF approach is relatively new and untested, Mayor Martin says, "We're willing to take the chance to protect our citizens."

Parsons says self-governance ordinances challenge the unjust framework of the law in which corporate rights supersede local citizens rights, such as the right to water. According to the CELDF, more than 100 municipalities in five states have adopted similar ordinances preventing corporations from setting up factory farms, dumping sewage sludge, pumping water from aquifers, and mining.

Local Water Sources and Potential Impacts of Shale Gas Development
A primary concern regarding shale gas development is protecting local water sources. In some places, a shale gas well can be drilled as close as 200 feet to a drinking water supply. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, local waters can be impacted due to:

    the large amounts of water that may be withdrawn from local sources and used for well construction and activities;
    damage due to heavy equipment and traffic on rural roads and the related degradation of small watersheds and streams;
    improper disposal of large quantities of frack water.

In addition, surface runoff, spills, leaks, and accidents can occur in which potentially toxic frack water makes its way to local waters. Citizens in many states already claim that their drinking water wells have been contaminated as a result of gas development activities.

Three key steps to protecting water sources at the local level are to (1) monitor water quality and quantity, (2) develop watershed or sourcewater protection plans, and (3) implement watershed or sourcewater protection ordinances. Determining baseline water quality and quantity characteristics for local water sources--including municipal and private wells, and surface waters such as rivers and lakes--and in some cases continually monitoring these characteristics, allows you to identify water quality changes and the level of water withdrawals due to gas development or other industrial activities.

Sourcewater protection plans typically address potential threats to the local drinking water supply, while watershed plans cover the entire watershed, the area of land where all water, both above and underground, drains into the same place. Plans are usually voluntary guidance documents. Ordinances are enforceable, regulatory tools. Plans can be strengthened if local ordinances are implemented to support them.

A Watershed Protection Plan to Address Hydraulic Fracturing in Palisade, Colorado

In 2006, when mineral rights on the pristine, 14,000-acre watershed that provides drinking water to the town of Palisade, Colorado (population 2,800) were leased to a natural gas drilling company, local leaders knew they had to act. Palisade is known for its peaches, wine vineyards, and prime location in the heart of Western Colorado's recreational attractions. "We're a rural community, water is very important to our people; to our hunting, fishing, and outdoor lifestyle; and to making a living. Local leaders and residents are very protective of our water," says Frank Watt, Palisade's Public Works Director. "We were concerned that drilling would impact the quality of our spring water sources, interfere with the geology and natural processes that provide it, and force an increase in customers' water bills to cover additional treatment, development of new water sources, or other impacts."

Local leaders in Palisade teamed up with all parties affected by the shale gas leasing agreement--including the mineral rights owner, the federal Bureau for Land Management; the U.S. Forest Service; the nearby town of Grand Junction; Mesa County; ranchers and private property owners; and the natural gas drilling company--to develop a comprehensive watershed protection plan. The Community College in Grand Junction facilitated the process, and public input was solicited. "We were unable to undo the lease agreement, but the collaborative watershed plan put strategies in place to protect our environment,” says Watt. "We were fortunate that the natural gas drilling company was a willing partner and wanted to do things right."

The stakeholders worked closely with hydrogeologists and other technical experts to craft the plan. Although the plan is voluntary and non-binding because, at the time, there was no legal basis for enforcing its provisions, all parties agreed to comply. Plan components include (a) communicating and coordinating with local communities, and keeping the public informed of drilling activities and handling their complaints and concerns; (b) conducting risk analyses to address possible surface water and groundwater contamination; (c) using third parties to conduct water studies and monitoring; (d) commitments by the gas company that go beyond mandated requirements; and (e) best management practices for risk mitigation to protect watersheds. The team also conducted an extensive study of the watershed and attained an "Outstanding Water" quality designation from the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission, which requires the waters to be maintained and protected at their existing quality. As of summer 2011, Watt says, no drilling has occurred in the watershed.

Morgantown, West Virginia Citizens Respond to Drilling Near Their Drinking Water Plant

In May 2011, when Morgantown’s Dominion Post newspaper announced "Gas Drilling OK'd Near City" and a follow-up headline eleven days later proclaimed, "Morgantown Utility Board (MUB) Concerned About Drilling," local residents were caught completely off guard. State law does not require the WV Department of Environmental Protection to notify the public when it permits these operations. Two shale gas wells were being drilled on a hillside above the Monongahela River--which supplies water to 90,000 area residents--about 3,000 feet away and 1,500 feet upstream from the local drinking water plant. "These proximities," according to MUB, “are a cause for unique concern. "It took concerted public pressure on the city council, county commission, and state government to raise key questions and focus statewide attention not only on local concerns, but also on updating the state's oil and gas regulations to address Marcellus shale gas development. Although new regulations are not yet enacted, some interim emergency regulations are now in place. The issue remains controversial as some residents welcome economic benefits from drilling, while others want to prevent potential industrialization of their community and rural areas and pollution of their water, air, and land.

A Foundation for Making Informed Decisions

Across the country, many questions remain about shale gas activities and their current and future impacts on small and rural communities and water sources. The American Water Works Association, the largest organization of water supply professionals in the world, recently published an article in its July 2011 Opflow magazine in which Paul R. Easley, environmental manager for the Fort Smith, Arkansas Utility cautions, "Communities stand to benefit enormously from profits associated with natural gas exploration. However, the wealth may come at the cost of one of the most precious commodities on earth--clean, safe drinking water." Understanding how shale gas development and other industrial activities may affect your community and environment; what costs and services will be borne by the local government and residents; how to monitor, manage, or prevent these problems; as well as the strategies available to do so provides a foundation for informed decision making.

References and Resources

Recommendations for Local Officials

Brasier, K., Fogel, N. Schramm, B., Kelsey, T. (2009). Marcellus Education Fact Sheet: Questions Citizens and Local Leaders Should Be Asking. Pennsylvania State University, Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension. http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/ua459.pdf

City and Regional Planning Department at Cornell University. (2009). New York State Government Local Government Guide to Marcellus Shale Gas Development.

Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension. Local Government: Community Impacts Website. http://extension.psu.edu/naturalgas/local-government

Rea, K.S., Esq. (March 30, 2009). A Legal and Practical Guide to Protecting Your Citizens and the Environment in the Face of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling. Specific to New York but may offer information of interest to other states.  http://www.tcgasmap.org/media/Rea%20on%20How%20Towns%20Can%20Prepare.pdf

Rodgers, M., Fogle, N., Kelsey, T., Lembeck, S., Pifer, R., Whitmer, W., Wulfhorst, P. (2008). Marcellus Shale: What Local Government Officials Need to Know. Pennsylvania State University, Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension.

Cornell University. Green Choices Website. Includes Working Papers/Policy Briefs and an Online Toolkit for Local Policy. http://www.greenchoices.cornell.edu/development/marcellus/

Task Force Resources

Tioga Investigates Natural Gas. (Winter 2010). Resource Binder: Natural Gas Exploration and Development. Developed by Tioga County, NY steering committee. Offers information about shale gas development, its potential impacts, and how to manage them. Instructive model for local officials in other counties and states.

Whitmer, W., Brasier, K. (2008). Marcellus Education Fact Sheet: Marcellus Shale Exploration and Development: Organizing a Community Task Force. Pennsylvania State University, Agricultural Research and Cooperative Extension. http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/FreePubs/pdfs/ua451.pdf

Sample Watershed/Sourcewater Protection Plans

Watershed Plan for the Town of Palisade and the City of Grand Junction, Colorado. (August 2007). Includes watershed ordinances in Appendix 3. http://genesispalisadecdp.org/Assets/PDF%20files/20070801_watershed_plan.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (March 2008). Handbook for Developing Watershed Plans to Restore and Protect Our Waters. http://water.epa.gov/polwaste/nps/handbook_index.cfm

Sample Watershed/Sourcewater Protection Ordinances

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Model Ordinances to Protect Local [Groundwater and Surface Water] Resources Website.http://www.epa.gov/owow/NPS/ordinance/mol7.htm
Watershed Plan for the Town of Palisade and the City of Grand Junction, Colorado. (August 2007). Includes watershed ordinances in Appendix 3. http://genesispalisadecdp.org/Assets/PDF%20files/20070801_watershed_plan.pdf

Local Ordinances Addressing Shale Gas Activities

Arkansas Public Policy Panel. (March 2011). Model Oil and Gas Laws, Regulations, and Ordinances. http://arpanel.org/content/Model%20Gas%20Laws.pdf

Pennsylvania State University School of Law. The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Marcellus Shale Resource Area Website. Links to municipal ordinances regulating shale gas activities in Pennsylvania.

Guardino, A.S. (September 22, 2010). “Marcellus Shale ‘Gas Rush’ Raises Local Zoning Issues.” In New York Law Journal. http://www.farrellfritz.com/doc/article-412.pdf

Local Ordinances Banning Shale Gas Activities

Town of Mountain Lake Park: Natural Gas Extraction Ordinance (No. 2011-01). (2011)

An Ordinance to Protect the Health, Safety, and Welfare of Residents and Neighborhoods of Pittsburgh by Banning the Commercial Extraction of Natural Gas within the City; Establishing a Bill of Rights for Pittsburgh Residents; and Removing Legal Powers from Gas Extraction Corporations Within the City. (2010).

Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Common Sense: Banning Fracking at the Local Level. http://celdf.org/downloads/COMMON%20SENSE%20-%20Banning%20Fracking%20at%20the%20Local%20Level.pdf

Impacts on Water Resources

Easley, P.R. (July 2011). “Hydrofracking: Is it Worth the Risk.” In American Water Works Association’s Opflow.

Morgantown Utility Board. (2011). Unpublished letter to WV Department of Environmental Protection. (May 10).

Riha, S., Rahm, B.G. (December 2010). Framework for Assessing Water Resource Impacts from Shale Gas Drilling. In Working Paper Series: A Comprehensive Economic Impact Analysis of Natural Gas Extraction in the Marcellus Shale. Cornell University.

Soeder, D.J., Kappel, W.M. (2009). Factsheet: Water Resources and Natural Gas Production from the Marcellus Shale. U.S. Geological Service. http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2009/3032/pdf/FS2009-3032.pdf

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hydraulic Fracturing Website.

Maps of Shale Plays in the United States
U.S. Energy Information Administration. North American Shale Plays Map.

U.S. Energy Information Administration. Lower 48 states shale plays.


Author Bio: Sandra Fallon is a training specialist with the National Environmental Services Center at West Virginia University.

About the Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP) and the National Environmental Services Center (NESC).
RCAP (www.rcap.org; 800-321-7227 FREE) and its programs across the country offer water and wastewater training and assistance to small and rural communities, tribes, and water utilities. NESC (www.nesc.wvu.edu; 800-624-8301 FREE) offers information, technical assistance via telephone, educational resources, and magazines and newsletters addressing water and wastewater issues for these same audiences.




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