Greg Vitali: In Marcellus shale debate, it's time to clear the air

November 04, 2011|By GREG VITALI

In the Marcellus shale debate, one point is frequently overlooked. It’s time to clear the air.

Marcellus drilling is a significant source of air pollution, and as drilling expands so will the risk to human health and the environment. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection needs to do more.

The drilling, processing, and transportation of Marcellus gas require many pieces of equipment and activities which release harmful pollutants into the air. In fact, gas transmission and production engines are the second largest emitters of nitrogen oxides in Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, the full extent of these emissions is not known because the DEP doesn’t collect air emissions data from well head activity. However, we do know that this type of drilling has caused serious air pollution problems elsewhere. In 2009, Wyoming for the first time failed to meet federal health-based standards for air pollution, primarily due to oil- and gas-related emissions.

The Marcellus air threat will only increase over time. As many as 60,000 wells may be drilled in Pennsylvania by 2030; Right now there are only about 4,000.

The Marcellus air pollutants – nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and methane — can cause or exacerbate a variety of respiratory and other health-related conditions. These pollutants also can damage the environment. Nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide together are the major precursors to acid rain. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas.

In order to address these growing threats, the DEP should:

• Increase air emission permit fees and use those additional funds to increase staffing in its air pollution control program. This program is currently funded almost exclusively by fees collected from air permits and the program is understaffed.

• Require best available pollution control technology for compressor engines. Currently, in many cases, the DEP is not requiring the installation of air pollution control equipment on the internal combustion engines used on the well pad and to compress and transport the gas.

• Require air permits for well head activity. Currently all oil and gas drilling well head activity is exempted.

• Collect and publish air emissions data. This will help DEP estimate future emissions and the resources needed to properly regulate the drilling industry.

These measures will help insure the Marcellus air threat is kept in check. Action needs to be taken now. It’s time to clear the air.

Greg Vitali is a Democratic member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from Delaware County and serves on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. He can be reached at

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