Team 4: Gas Drilling Boom Taking Toll On Land

WTAE-TV - Pittsburgh
19 December 12008

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PITTSBURGH -- Layoffs and record losses have become commonplace during the current economic crisis, but one western Pennsylvania industry is experiencing record profits.

The natural gas drilling business is having an unprecedented economic boom in the state.

But all the drilling can take its toll on the land.

New technology allows companies to drill deeper than ever into the Marcellus Shale formation a mile down to tap what is now estimated to be more gas than lies beneath Texas at nearly 400 trillion cubic feet.

"The annual consumption of natural gas in the United States is 23 trillion cubic feet, so that's enough for a nearly 40 year supply for the entire country," said Carl Carlson of the Independent Oil & Gas Association.

And quietly, some landowners in the Pittsburgh region are collecting royalties and getting wealthy very fast.

"So they're buying new tractors, they're buying new cars, they're putting up houses," said Carlson.

But Washington County landowner Ron Gulla said he regrets the day he signed a lease with a drilling company.

He expected one shallow gas well, but got four Marcellus Shale wells.

"To do that, it's going to require large rigs, and it's going to take up a lot more land, it's going to take up more personnel, more people," said Gulla.

Gulla says his land is being destroyed.

"It pollutes the land, it pollutes the water, it kills everything," said Gulla.

Gulla said he argued with the drilling company about damage to his pond, hillside, and property value.

"You walk around on your dream and it's gone. I worked so hard here. They promote the money. They're not concerned about your health, your family's health, your kid's health and it's sad and its scary," said Gulla.

Gulla said Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection scientists frequent his property to test the water and survey the soil erosion.

The Marcellus Shale drilling boom is taxing DEP's staff to the limit.

"We recognize how complex the problem is, how many factors there are, and how you have to address each one," said Helen Humphreys of the DEP.

The industry maintains the sacrifice by landowners and taxpayers is worth it.

"The Marcellus Shale is a tremendous economic opportunity for Pennsylvania and could create hundreds of thousands of jobs," said Carlson.

Pennsylvania is now figuring out how to make the industry pay for some of the costs that the drilling boom is creating.

A state board approved a nine-fold increase in permit fees for gas drillers earlier this week.

The company that drilled wells on Gulla's property acknowledged it made some mistakes and said it has learned from them.

The company said it has tried repeatedly to compensate Gulla, but he has rebuffed those offers.