Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pennsylvania: the 'ground zero' of the US shale gas drilling boom - 21st Apr 2011

Sitting atop a vast deposit of natural gas, Pennsylvania knows how lucrative – and dangerous – this rapidly expanding industry is. But how can it prevent large-scale environmental damage?

Last June, Tony Zaffuto arrived at his fieldstone cabin in the forested hills of Pennsylvania's SB Elliott state park to find a notice pinned on the front door: "Danger. Do not occupy dwelling".

A blowout at a gas well in another popular camping spot, in the woods of the Punxsutawney hunt club, also in Clearfield County, had shot a 23-metre (75ft) combustible gusher of gas and toxic waste water into the air. It took the gas company, EOG Resources, 16 hours to control the well and the authorities had to carry out an evacuation.

It was not Zaffuto's first encounter with the dangers of natural gas drilling. In 2009 the spring that was the cabin's only source of water was contaminated by toxic waste from a pond serving the gas wells. Five other nearby water wells were also contaminated.

And yet Zaffuto is right behind Pennsylvania's natural gas boom. He supports the idea of US energy security and he wants his country to reduce oil imports.

"Throughout all this, I am pro-drilling, but I want to see it done correctly," Zaffuto, a businessman whose family have owned the cabin since 1921, said. "Having it done correctly will not cripple the industry. If there is money to be made they will comply. If there is enough natural resource of gas in the ground, they will drill and they will abide by the regulations. It's simple."

But how can rigorous new environmental standards be imposed on an industry well advanced in the 21st century's first big energy rush?

Zaffuto still has no drinking water at his cabin, nearly two years after EOG admitted contaminating his well. The latest laboratory report says it is still unfit to drink. Read More