IF YOU ask a strident natural gas activist the largest threat to Pennsylvania's water quality, he or she likely will tell you – without hesitation – that hydraulic fracturing is the main culprit. Ask someone who truly understands the challenges facing Pennsylvania and you will get a much different answer. Mainly, an expert will tell you agricultural runoff, sewage overflows and suburban runoff are more serious culprits, as they pollute Pennsylvania's waterways every day.
Why the stark difference between the opinions of activists and experts? It might have something to do with the fact that Marcellus Shale development isn't even a blip on the radar of impacts to Pennsylvania's waters. Former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger stated this eloquently in reference to a recent announcement concerning water pollution in the Pittsburgh area. Specifically Hanger wrote:
"The annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette. And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.
"To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states. While America's sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern. There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers. There are no HBO movies on the problem."
Hanger is right. According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, Pennsylvania has 1,662 combined sewer outfalls (CSO) that release raw sewage into the state's waters each time there is a heavy rainfall or snowmelt. According to its report, "Pennsylvania has the greatest number of CSO communities (155) and CSO discharge points (1,662) in the nation."
Also, according to EPA, "combined sewer overflows contain not only storm water but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials and debris. They are a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems."
The story doesn't end there. Sewer overflows impact our nation's waters every year at a significant clip. In fact, the EPA in its 2004 "Report to Congress on Impacts and Control of Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows" reports that CSO events resulted in the discharge of 850 billion gallons of raw untreated sewage each year.
Pollutants actually impairing watersheds in Pennsylvania aren't hard to find if you know where to look. Reports from DEP and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission in 2010 – well after natural gas development began in Pennsylvania – show the largest pollution sources for the river are agriculture, followed by urban and suburban runoff, atmospheric deposition (pollutants emanating from other sources and dropping here) and finally combined sewer overflows. No contamination from natural gas activities. Not anywhere on the list.
There's good reason for that. Three presidential administrations – Clinton, Bush and Obama – and statements made by regulators in more than 12 states and by respected environmental groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund all show hydraulic fracturing doesn't pose a threat to water.
Government regulators aren't the only ones saying the technology doesn't pose a significant threat to water resources and is therefore not a cause for alarm. Independent academics are saying the same thing, as noted by Mark Zoback, a respected Stanford professor of geophysics who also served on the Secretary of Energy's committee on shale gas development. Zoback stated, "We think the mystery surrounding hydraulic fracturing has actually been exacerbated and people have been paranoid, really for no reason."
In spite of these facts, environmental groups with an agenda and pseudo-celebrities are ignoring these real and enormous sources of water contamination to focus on a process that hasn't caused a single case of water pollution in more than 60 years of use.
So the question remains. If the protection of water is the end goal and hydraulic fracturing hasn't had a significant impact on waterways in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else for that matter, then why are activists ignoring every source of pollution actually affecting our state's hydrology? It might be that potential impacts on water are a convenient excuse to protest an energy source with which they don't personally agree.
John Krohn, of Dallas, serves as a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an education and outreach arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. He can be reached at John@energyindepth.org.