(Corrects details throughout of commission’s action)
* City Councilman concerned about effects of “fracking”
* Future Marcellus buys may consider environmental costs
By Jon Hurdle
PHILADELPHIA, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Philadelphia officials on Tuesday recommended a city utility continue its practice of not buying natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation and asked it to consider adding environmental costs when calculating the price of any future purchases.
The city’s Gas Commission, a regulatory body that oversees Philadelphia Gas Works, agreed to support the watered-down recommendations in a city report that has been promoted by City Councilman Curtis Jones, a critic of the controversial method of hydraulic fracturing used to drill the Marcellus Shale.
The Marcellus is a major gas field underlying about two-thirds of Pennsylvania and parts of surrounding states.
Jones and others have expressed concern that toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing may contaminate the Delaware River watershed that supplies city water.
But industry groups, including the Marcellus Shale Coalition, maintain the process is proven to be safe and harmless to water supplies.
“Gas and oil harvested from hydraulically fractured wells is proven, safe and has been deployed for decades on more than 1.1 million occasions without harm to drinking water supplies,” the Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement.
The process known as “fracking” involves blasting a mixture of chemicals, sand and water deep underground to fracture shale formations, allowing natural gas to escape. For an index of shale gas companies, double-click on TRSHALEGAS.
The Gas Commission agreed to adopt the recommendations only after changes to the text that recognize a state law requires the utility to buy gas at the lowest price available. That law currently prevents the utility from buying Marcellus gas, largely because there is no direct pipeline linking its gas fields to the city, making it prohibitively expensive.
But if that were to change, the commission agreed to discuss incorporating the environmental costs of Marcellus gas -- potentially making it more expensive -- once a highly awaited U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report comes out next year.
“Thus far there is no assurance to Philadelphia that the water quality in streams and rivers of this region are safeguarded ... This report urges our body to wait for the cumulative results of the EPA study before the entire state of Pennsylvania moves forward,” Jones said in a statement.
The city council was expected to approve the recommendations on Thursday.
“There is a very significant issue for Philadelphia because it directly affects the watershed from which the city draws its drinking water,” said Philip Bertocci, a public advocate who represents residential customers of Philadelphia Gas Works.
Philadelphia Gas Works buys $300 million to $350 million of gas per year but none of it from the Marcellus Shale and it has no plans to do so, a spokesman said. Most of its gas comes via pipeline from the Gulf of Mexico.
The Gas Commission’s unanimous vote followed a decision by the Pittsburgh City Council to preemptively ban hydraulic fracturing in that city.
Concern over the safety of “fracking” prompted New York state to impose a moratorium on the technique. In Buffalo, New York, the city council was expected to vote later this month on a ban similar to Pittsburgh‘s. (Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Gregorio)