Pennsylvania to partner with natural gas driller on in-depth study of air emissions, water quality

State officials are touting the collaboration with CNX Resources Corp. as the first of its kind.

In this Oct. 29, 2008, file photo, a drilling rig used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, located on a hill above a pond on John Dunn's farm in the Washington County borough of Houston, Pa.

In this Oct. 29, 2008, file photo, a drilling rig used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale, located on a hill above a pond on John Dunn's farm in the Washington County borough of Houston, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

The state of Pennsylvania will work with a major natural gas producer to collect in-depth data on air emissions and water quality at well sites, enhance public disclosure of drilling chemicals and expand buffer zones, the governor announced Thursday, touting the collaboration as the first of its kind.

CNX Resources Corp., based in Canonsburg, will partner with the state Department of Environmental Protection on intensive environmental monitoring at two future well sites throughout all stages of the drilling and fracking process — a data-collection exercise that could be used to drive future policy changes, according to Gov. Josh Shapiro.

The announcement comes amid ongoing concerns about the potential environmental and health effects of fracking, and more than three years after a grand jury concluded that state regulators had failed to properly oversee the state’s huge gas-drilling industry.

“Pennsylvanians want us to do everything we can to help keep them and their families safe,” Shapiro said Thursday at a news conference at a CNX well pad in Washington County, in the state’s southwest corner. “I believe to do that, we need to bring transparency to this process, collect more data so we can ensure that we have the necessary and appropriate protections in place.”

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State officials say they expect the monitoring program to “definitively measure” emissions at well sites. Some environmental groups were skeptical. One, Food & Water Watch, criticized Shapiro for “striking bogus partnerships to give frackers a public relations victory” instead of taking action to “rein in corporate polluters.”

Under its voluntary agreement with the state, CNX will report air quality data on a new website, beginning with one of its existing wells in Washington County and eventually expanding to its entire Pennsylvania operation. The company also agreed to disclose the chemicals it plans to use at a well site before the start of drilling and fracking.

And it will expand setbacks from the state-required 500 feet (152 meters) to 600 feet (183 meters) at all drilling sites, and increase them to 2,500 feet (762 meters) for schools, hospitals and other sensitive sites during the data-collection period.

The company has drilled more than 500 wells in the vast Marcellus Shale natural gas field. Pennsylvania is the nation’s No. 2 gas-producing state after Texas.

Nick Deiuliis, CNX’s president and CEO, who joined Shapiro at the event, said the company is committed to “radical transparency” in an effort to enhance public trust and improve operations.

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“When we see something unexpected or atypical, we’re prepared and committed to acting in a way where we engineer and design our way to even better performance,” said Deiuliis, calling on other companies to follow suit. He said he expected the data to “definitively confirm for all stakeholders that there are no adverse human health issues related to responsible natural gas development.”

Shapiro, a Democrat in his first term as governor, was the state’s attorney general in 2020 when a grand jury concluded after a two-year investigation that state regulators had failed to prevent Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling industry from sickening people and poisoning air and water. The panel issued eight recommendations, none of which have been enacted legislatively.

Shapiro announced Thursday that he’s instructed regulators to use their existing authority to implement some of the recommendations, including new requirements for the public disclosure of drilling chemicals and stronger standards for drilling-waste disposal and pipeline corrosion control.

Environmental groups were split on Thursday’s announcement. The head of the Pennsylvania Environment Council appeared at the news conference and spoke in support, and two other groups, PennEnvironment and the Clean Air Council, released statements praising Shapiro’s regulatory moves as a step in the right direction.

But Megan McDonough, state director of Food & Water Watch Pennsylvania, said that “Shapiro’s toothless monitoring scheme is outrageous and embarrassing.”

“We are well past the point of needing new studies to tell us what we already know: Fracking has sickened frontline communities, contaminated water supplies, and increased air and climate pollution,” she said.

The Better Path Coalition, an alliance of Pennsylvania grassroots groups that oppose the fossil fuel industry, blasted Shapiro for taking what it called “half-measures” on drilling, and for having faith in CNX, which it called a “recidivist methane gas driller” that regulators have cited with more than 30 violations this year alone.

On the other side, Dave Callahan, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, cautioned against any new legislation or regulation that would “further restrict energy development” and “harm our economy, undermine personal property rights, and reverse the significant environmental and air quality progress enabled by natural gas.”

CNX and other similar energy companies combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a technique that injects vast amounts of water, along with sand and chemicals, underground to break up the gas-bearing shale. The drilling methods spurred a U.S. production boom in shale gas and oil, while raising concerns about air and water quality as well as potential health effects.

Children who lived closer to natural gas wells in heavily drilled western Pennsylvania were more likely to develop a relatively rare form of cancer, and nearby residents of all ages had an increased chance of severe asthma reactions, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh said in a pair of reports that were commissioned by the state Department of Health and released in August. The researchers were unable to say whether the drilling caused the health problems.

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