Tom Murphy, Penn State University extension educator for Lycoming County, sat down Jan. 26 for a one-on-one interview with the Farm and Dairy.
Murphy is co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. He has 25 years of field experience and educational consultation with landowners, government agencies, and public officials. His recent focus has been on natural gas exploration.
He has lectured throughout Pennsylvania on Marcellus Shale and topics associated with its development including landowner leasing issues, environmental impacts, the drilling process, infrastructure development, and financial considerations.
In addition, Murphy lives on a farm with his wife and children. The farm utilizes a spring and Marcellus Shale drilling is occurring on his neighbor’s property.
“Yes, these things are concerns to me, too,” Murphy said. He added that everything has to be taken into consideration when it comes to Marcellus Shale drilling.
Q. What is the most dangerous part of drilling through the Marcellus Shale for gas? Is it the fracking process?
A. Murphy said it is not the fracking that should cause the most concern, it is actually the truck traffic associated with the drilling process.
Murphy added that what many people don’t realize that is that the water testing done before the drilling begins usually shows problems that have been there for years, it’s just that we don’t have regulations to test drinking water and most people don’t do it on a regular basis.
Methane is a concern, however. He has seen a few places where the methane gas actually makes it way up the well, into the drinking water well, up through the pipes and into the house. Murphy was quick to point out, though, that many times the methane gas was there prior to the drilling, but the drilling just may have provided a way for it to escape.
Murphy said increased regulation in Pennsylvania is helping address concerns over water and methane. He expects the regulations to be adapted in other areas of Marcellus Shale drilling region.
He said there can be a problem with the casing and grouting of the well if not drilled correctly. Sometimes the casing moves in the well and that causes the grouting to be uneven. However, Pennsylvania requires a centralizer in the casing, which keeps the casing centered. That means grouting will be equal all the way around the casing, and prevents methane gas from escaping.
He said the biggest concern with fracking brine fluid is not when it is in the ground. The problem is with brine surface being on the surface.
Murphy added that’s where the concern should be and not necessarily on the fracking process if the regulations are followed. He said the increased truck traffic poses a concern because of the potential for an accident especially if the truck is carrying brine water.
He added there have been a few cases of a truck overturning in Pennsylvania spilling the brine water.
“You just can’t prevent everything,” Murphy said.
He added there is a trend toward the construction of open pits for liquids and that could prove to be a positive development.
Murphy said 250 Department of Environmental Protection field inspectors are acting as the eyes and ears on the ground, ensuring state regulations are being followed. Their salaries are funded through the permit fees charged by the Pennsylvania for drilling.
Q. What is the biggest impact on the agriculture community you have seen happen in Pennsylvania?
A. Financial impacts are the biggest.
Murphy even called the effects life changing, as farmers can rebuild infrastructure and plan for retirement.
“Barns are being painted and repaired. Homes are being updated. The landscape in rural areas is being changed,” Murphy said.
Cash being generated from the Marcellus Shale drilling and leasing is helping to plan for the next generation of farmers. He said cash wasn’t part of the equation in the past and it will help ease the farm transition.
Q. How will the Marcellus Shale boom change the type of agriculture being produced on many farms?
A. The types of agriculture are changing and changing fast. Murphy said some dairy farms are switching from milk cows to some other type of agriculture that may be less demanding. He said the number of dairy farms are decreasing as the boom moves across Pennsylvania and he expects to see the same effect in Ohio.
Murphy added it’s not just in animal production — it is also happening in agriculture-related businesses. He said some seed corn providers are seeing a decrease in sales because some farmers have decided to not plant and instead invest funds in another way.
Q. Have there been changes in the labor force as a side effect of the Marcellus Shale boom?
A. Murphy said one effect is that local drilling jobs are getting filled with local individuals, which creates a loss of farm labor.
He said the gas companies are looking for a labor pool that is local, works hands-on and will work outside in all types of weather.
“Who fits that description? Farmers.”
He said the companies will be paying better wages and benefits than most farms can provide, which will result in a shortage of farm labor.
Q. What is the effect on truck traffic as a result of the drilling moving into the area?
A. Big impacts. Murphy said there is a lot of material that has to be moved from one pad to another once the drilling rigs move in.
Roads are the hardest hit — they simply break up under the traffic. He added, however, in Pennsylvania, gas companies must obtain permits or post to a bond to use the roads. The companies he has known are willing to come back and fix them, and have either improved or upgraded them in most cases.
“No question, there is a lot of tear and wear and on them,” Murphy said.
Q. What other impacts can landowners expect to see as the drilling process continues?
A. Some landowners who have not leased because they do not own a lot of land will still be approached for a pipeline right of way.
Murphy said the trend is for fewer pads to be developed, but more wells on those pads. This requires more gathering line to transport the gas. However, the rights of way still needs to be gained for the gathering line.
He said in Bradford County, Pa., there are now 10,000 miles of it. Two years ago, he estimated there was less than 500 miles.
There is also a concern about soil erosion. He said some farms can expect to see a 3- to 5-year drag in agriculture production, or yields, of soil after a pipeline is installed on the property. However, studies are showing production picks up where it left off after that time.
Owners of large bodies of water are also part of the mix. He said gas companies cannot purchase water, but they can sign leases with owners to gain the right of way to get the water.
And other landowners who may own land near a well site could also see benefits. The gas company may lease a right of way from their adjoining property to the well site.