Former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, now a consultant to the natural gas industry, said Thursday that drillers operating in the Marcellus Shale recognize they need to improve their image if they want to be "warmly embraced" by the public, not just "grudgingly accepted."
Ridge toured several shale outcroppings with a Penn State University geologist, seeking to learn more about the gas-bearing rock that's led to a drilling boom throughout northern and southwestern Pennsylvania.
While talking up the economic potential of the Marcellus, Ridge told The Associated Press that energy companies know they must do a better job of reassuring citizens that they take environmental protection seriously.
"The industry, from my perspective, needs to be concerned about their public image and needs to understand what they need to do to improve it," Ridge said. "They are conscious of it. They know they have some work to do."
He said that drillers may have misjudged how Pennsylvania residents would feel about an industry that arrived virtually overnight, creating startling wealth and tens of thousands of jobs but also plenty of headaches, including truck traffic, industrial accidents and contaminated aquifers.
"There may not have been as much initial sensitivity to the fact we (in Pennsylvania) don't quite have that broader cultural notion of drilling as part of the environment as they do in Oklahoma or in Texas," Ridge said.
Ridge declined to talk about a state Senate bill that would impose a so-called impact fee on Marcellus drilling operations, but said he assumes the Legislature and Gov. Tom Corbett will arrive at a compromise. Pennsylvania is the largest gas-producing state without an extraction tax.
"My instincts tell me there's going to be some kind of revenue generation. I just don't know where it's going to be and in what form," he said.
Ridge toured several sites in Lycoming County, where state environmental regulators confirmed Thursday they are investigating a Marcellus well pad as the possible source of methane found in seven water wells and a creek. XTO Energy Inc. has drilled three gas wells about 2,300 feet away. The company, a subsidiary of energy giant ExxonMobil Corp., has voluntarily stopped operations in the county and agreed to supply water to the affected residents.
Both Ridge and Terry Engelder, the Penn State geologist leading Thursday's tour, said that methane contamination of well water was a problem in Pennsylvania long before the arrival of the gas industry. Engelder, an industry booster, said a high percentage of Pennsylvania's water wells would fail "any sensible set of water well standards."
But he acknowledged that drilling, if not done properly, can cause methane to migrate into aquifers.
"Any well that is drilled will encounter pockets of methane. That's just sort of the first rule of thumb. Engineers have to learn to manage the methane here in terms of preventing it from leaking in significant quantities up into the groundwater," he said.
Engelder's 2008 calculation of vast reserves in the Marcellus helped spur the drilling frenzy. More than 3,000 wells have been drilled so far in Pennsylvania. He estimates it could take more than a century to fully exploit the resource.
Ridge, who left the governor's office in 2001 to serve as the nation's first Department of Homeland Security secretary, was hired last summer as a strategic adviser to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group.
He listened gamely as Engelder talked about the 389 million-year geologic history of the Marcellus and lectured on the mechanics of rock fractures. The former governor clambered over loose rocks, swung a rock hammer to break apart pieces of shale, and colored a rock face with white chalk to bring the shale's natural fractures into relief.
"Is this pass or fail?" Ridge joked. "G-A-S. I passed."