The Next Battleground for Shale Drilling: Compressor Plants
As the number of Marcellus gas wells increase in Pennsylvania, so too do the number of pipelines to move the gas and the number of natural gas compressor stations. Compressor stations push the gas along the pipeline until the pipeline connects to a larger pipeline. Compressor stations are the next battleground for anti-drillers who want to plant the seeds of doubt.
For example, 29 permits have been or are being considered for compressor stations in northeastern PA, and of those, nearly two dozen of them are within a 15-mile radius of Dimock, PA. Since 2005, 383 permits have been issued statewide, but not all of them have been or will be built. The issue of contention is air pollution. Each station emits some volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). How much they emit, and their combined effect in a region, is what is in dispute.
The state considers the cumulative effect of the compressors using an existing network of monitoring stations that measure the ambient air quality, mostly in urban areas, Mark Wejkszner, DEP’s regional air quality program manager, told an audience at a hearing this spring in Susquehanna County. The closest monitors are in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, about 30 miles away.
Pollution levels above federal air quality standards measured at those stations would determine if the state issues fewer or stricter permits, he said, but "right now, we’re in compliance with all of them with a lot of leeway."*
Anti-drilling environmental groups are critical of the Department of Environmental Protection, claiming that the state is not doing enough to measure and monitor air quality in drilling zones.
"DEP does not have a comprehensive monitoring program to monitor contaminants in the air throughout the shale play regions of the state," PennFuture president George Jugovic Jr. said. "We’re not monitoring for VOCs in these rural areas. We’re not monitoring for toxics. Having already begun this development, baseline is not really a question anymore. Now the question is can we get monitoring to ensure there are no local or regional impacts as we move forward."*
But drillers say they are ahead of the curve, using new technology even before the law requires it to improve air quality. Williams, which acquired Laser Northeast Gathering earlier this year and now owns half of the permits in northeast PA, is a good example:
Last week, Williams withdrew three permit applications for planned stations in Liberty and Forest Lake townships in Susquehanna County that were the subject of an April hearing. It plans to submit new applications for the same sites with smaller compressor engines, although it is not yet clear how many engines it will propose to install, a spokeswoman said.
The current lean-burn compressor engines that run on methane – "far and away the least polluting fuel source that we have" – release about a tenth of the nitrogen oxides that the best engines emitted a decade ago… And rich-burn engines that can currently be used for relatively low-horsepower facilities reduce all of the pollutants even more.
The amount of nitrogen oxides released into the air at each site each year is "like teacups of water compared to Lake Erie"…
"We have to meet the national air quality standards at the fence line of the facility…That’s what drives us back to the technology. It’s primarily focused on people working and living in proximity to that facility so they are not impacted negatively."*
What about the landowners who will host these compressors and live closest to them. Are they concerned?
At a recent Susquehanna County hearing, Jim Barbour, who will host one of the planned stations on his property, said Susquehanna County is fortunate to have Marcellus Shale packed with dry methane that emits fewer toxic chemicals, like benzene, than so-called wet gas in other parts of the state. He also urged residents to consider the positive effect of using natural gas to displace dirtier fossil fuels.
"These couple of compressor stations, yes that might affect our neighborhood in a slight way, but look at the bigger picture – getting gas to market that can change our country," he said. "Am I concerned about the air at my farm? I’m not. And I’m glad to be part of the process."*
*Wilkes-Barre (PA) The Citizens’ Voice (Jun 18, 2012) – Air quality concerns raised as gas compressor stations multiply