In Pa., Drilling Comes Into Focus

The vast, untapped natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale are the subject of much debate. Scientists who are trying to shed light on the safety of drilling are facing a host of obstacles, including lack of funding and data. Susan Phillips Scientists who are trying to shed light on the safety of drilling are facing a host of obstacles.

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Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale is a big underground rock that contains vast amounts of natural gas. Whether extracting that gas is good for the economy or an environmental threat or both is hotly debated. But efforts to settle that question scientifically have been hampered by a lack of funding, insufficient data and claims of bias. StateImpact Pennsylvania's Susan Phillips reports.

SUSAN PHILLIPS, BYLINE: This is a story about how government makes decisions when science is involved. And not just science - jobs, public health, the environment, local tax revenue and even America's energy future are all playing out in Pennsylvania's sudden natural gas drilling boom. Here's how Governor Tom Corbett sees it.

GOVERNOR TOM CORBETT: We need to protect the water. We need to protect the environment. But we must do it based on science, not emotion.

PHILLIPS: Most Pennsylvanians now know that the Marcellus Shale is a very old rock that lies thousands of feet beneath forests and dairy farms. And that rock has a lot of natural gas. But some fear drilling will poison water supplies and turn up pristine forested area into an industrial zone.

So what does this have to do with a bunch of scientists looking for salamanders deep in a forest in north central Pennsylvania?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, there's a fairly bright one. You talking about the darker redder collar?

PHILLIPS: Researchers from Philadelphia's Academy of Natural Sciences scour a small stream for salamanders, brook trout and algae. It's part of a larger effort to measure the impact of natural gas drilling on the streams that run thousands of feet above nearby gas wells.

Salamanders, it turns out, can tell us a lot about changes in water quality. They're very sensitive, so they serve as good indicators to change. About 1,600 Marcellus Shale gas wells are operating in Pennsylvania today, but data on their environmental impact are hard to find.

RICHARD HORWITZ: There's a lack of data because this particular technology in this setting is very new.

PHILLIPS: That's Richard Horwitz, a senior biologist with the Academy of Natural Sciences. The regulation of gas drilling in Pennsylvania and elsewhere is left to the states. The federal government collects no uniform data on the practice. And that, Horwitz says, has researchers playing catch-up. But who pays for this needed research? Not much state government funding is available, and more and more scientists are staying away from industry funding.

Diane Schrauth is with Philadelphia's William Penn Foundation. And she says researchers are now turning to foundations like hers for money.

DIANE SCHRAUTH: They are struggling to not appear biased, you know? So many of them won't take industry funding.

PHILLIPS: One institution that has garnered a lot of criticism for doing so is Penn State, which some activists accuse of acting as a cheerleader for Marcellus Shale drilling.

Michael Arthur is a professor of geoscience at Penn State and the head of the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. Arthur says he does take industry money for some of his own research because it helps buy updated equipment for his students. But he says he's careful not to take industry money for research that looks at controversial gas drilling practices, like his work on how methane may leak into private water wells.

You know, the research I'm involved in, the stray gas, that's not industry funded. I wouldn't take industry money for that at this point.

Industry spokespeople say they, too, are committed to good science. And, if anything, they contend that there's bias on the environmental side of the issue. Travis Windle is a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a group that includes about 95 percent of the companies drilling in Pennsylvania. Windle says gas companies do respond to good science.

TRAVIS WINDLE: The perfect example is how we proactively dealt with the waste water discharge.

PHILLIPS: Up until last spring, drillers in Pennsylvania had been sending waste water to municipal treatment facilities that were not equipped to clean it, leading to the discharge of polluted water into the state's rivers and streams.

WINDLE: Now, because of straightforward science and facts that were put forth by some Carnegie Mellon researchers, we said we're going to, unilaterally as an industry, as an organization, stop these practices.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUNNING)

PHILLIPS: Back in the forest, Richard Horwitz shrugs when asked about what he might discover about the impact of gas drilling on aquatic life.

HORWITZ: Whatever answer we come up with, there may be some people who assume we were bought off.

PHILLIPS: Horwitz says he probably won't have an answer until the end of 2012. And will that be soon enough for politicians like Governor Corbett to make good decisions? For NPR News, I'm Susan Phillips.

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