PITTSBURGH – Natural gas is natural, of course. And a valued resource that is abundant, accessible and spearheading the nation’s charge toward energy independence.
And, according to the governor of Pennsylvania, an engineering marvel.
“Engineers have figured out how to (drill for gas) and do it safely,” Tom Corbett said Monday morning. “Marcellus Shale has had an impact, and the young engineers will someday look back and see what they did. This is important not just for us, but for generations – plural.”
The Republican governor kicked off the Shale Engineering Energy Conference at David Lawrence Convention Center, organized by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is a three-day informational event that may become annual, with the focus this week on engineering matters related to shale oil and gas production.
The matters are numerous, including regulatory and public policy issues, cost-effective and eco-friendly measures and emerging technologies.
Corbett, who is seeking re-election, may be an underdog in the polls, but has overseen Pennsylvania’s rise to energy top dog. His state, the second-largest natural gas producer in the nation, benefited from having the world’s second-largest energy field.
He is a firm advocate of a diverse energy portfolio, including coal, and is especially satisfied with what has transpired in Marcellus. The natural gas dynamic, Corbett said, has transformed dramatically in a decade.
“You can change the geopolitics of the world,” he told an audience of mostly engineers. “Ten years ago, we were getting natural gas from abroad. The United States was an importer and Pennsylvania was an importer. Pennsylvania is now an exporter.
“You’re really on the cutting edge. All engineers are, but especially here because of natural gas.”
A Shaler guy, Corbett praised engineers during his homecoming for their expertise in so many facets of shale work: planning, drilling, pipeline, water testing and much more, while adhering to a philosophy that extends beyond Boy Scouts: be prepared.
“We look to you to do this. We thank you for the work you do and have done.”
Kemal Niksic was gratified by the governor’s remarks. Niksic, a native of Bosnia and a principal engineer with Hatch Mott MacDonald of Pittsburgh, is the conference chair.
He acknowledged that the process of accessing natural gas, including hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – “has been and is a very complex issue.”
He said civil engineers take an “all-comprehensive approach” to the industry, with safety as a priority.
“We are stewards of our environment, and we take that seriously.”
In 2007, Corbett realized that shale gas had potential, but he did not comprehend the scope of it. He was Pennsylvania’s attorney general then, and spoke with an official from Lycoming County, who rhapsodized about the bountiful drilling in Texas. A team of Pennsylvania officials, including a deputy of Corbett’s, traveled to the Lone Star State to evaluate.
“The deputy said, ‘This is the real deal,’” Corbett said. “When I took office (in January 2011), I believed it had to be big.
“But to go from number five to number two in natural gas, I didn’t think anything like that would happen that quickly.”
Marcellus Shale gas is almost as prominent as questions about the prospects of an ethane cracker plant being built in Beaver County. One reporter queried Corbett, who said he will meet later this week with Royal Dutch Shell representatives.
Shell is considering several sites, including a former zinc production plant in Potter and Center townships near the Ohio River. Horsehead Holding Corp. closed its operations there in late April, and the land is being prepared in hopeful anticipation of a Shell plant.
Construction of a new plant would cost about $2 billion, but the facility would result in hundreds of jobs and further ramp up the region’s energy industry. Plastics would be a byproduct of the natural gas processed there.
The governor likes Beaver County’s chances.
“I feel very bullish and positive about this project,” he said. “A lot of work is being done there, a lot of money has been invested.
“My only concern is a major economic event in the world that may change (Shell’s) mind.”
Energy is prominent on the mind of a man who is devoting a lot of energy to returning to office. He is pleased with the direction the industry is following, as long as it doesn’t stray.
“We all have a responsibility to protect the environment,” he said, “and there’s no better state to protect than Pennsylvania.”