As BP’s gulf gusher rages on, residents of 34 states, including Pennsylvania, struggle with the physical, environmental, and financial injuries caused by unregulated and unscrupulous drilling companies. The Marcellus shale formation in the eastern United States houses extremely large deposits of natural gas. Drillers with state-issued licenses are descending on unprepared property owners like demons on unguarded souls.
Called the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas”, the shale formation holds enormous potential for domestic energy production and employment. It covers sixty percent of Pennsylvania’s land area, including all of southwestern PA. Gas deposits, ranging from 50 feet to 9,000 feet below the surface, are released through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”. Fracking involves infusing millions of gallons of water with a cocktail of 596 chemicals, including carcinogens and neurotoxins. The cocktail is injected into the earth under extremely high pressure. That process creates severe pollution to the air, the soil, and the water supply, thus impairing the health of land, crops, livestock, and people. The drillers get access to the shale by pressuring landowners into unfair and deceptive contracts.
The Pittsburgh Regional Building Trades Council (AFL-CIO) report, Key Pieces of the Marcellus Shale Puzzle, analyzes the employment outlook for a massive drilling initiative. The PA Department of Environmental Protection issued 1,985 licenses in 2009, and 763 wells have been drilled to date. Five of those licenses and two of the wells are in Allegheny County. It’s interesting that the counties with the largest number of wells are also those with the highest unemployment rates. The gas deposit has the potential to produce clean, abundant, badly needed energy for the US, along with good, long-term jobs in PA’s high unemployment areas. Unfortunately, so far it’s only bringing more pain and trouble to people who have been the hardest-hit by the recession.
Dr. Charles McCollester’s article, Under siege by Marcellus marauders, chronicles the devastation brought by the unregulated drillers who don’t hesitate to destroy the land, air, and water that belong to all of us.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005, exempts fracking from many environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was a primary supporter of the bill.
Two bills introduced in Congress last year would revoke that exemption, but haven’t received any attention. H.R. 2766 is in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. S. 1215 is in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition is an industry group of 95 Pennsylvania drilling companies, gas and oil companies, law firms, and suppliers who stand to make $$billions$$ by selling the gas extracted from our lands. Many of those companies have headquarters in Pittsburgh. They and their lobbyists are working hard to kill the bills.
Various state agencies are acting to delay or limit the drilling on a piecemeal basis, but it’s not enough. Since Congress won’t move, Pennsylvania State Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Lawrenceville) will introduce a bill requiring a moratorium on shale drilling on public and private land in the state for at least a year, in order to study the effects of the drilling methods. Ferlo is in the process of drafting the language and gathering support from his Senate colleagues. The study commission will analyze gas well drilling to make recommendations on:
• Proper protection for rivers, streams, and groundwater from drilling activities, including protecting drinking water, and managing wastewater, storm water run-off, and spills;
• Proper air quality regulations;
• The disclosure and consequences of specific chemicals used by the drilling industry, including amounts used at each well site;
• The appropriate permitting processes, drilling and well inspections, staffing levels, and other administrative responsibilities of the DEP;
• How to handle liability and bonding at all well sites in the event of likely drilling disasters that pose an environmental nightmare, especially in remote areas;
• The impact on the state labor market and on how to encourage job opportunities and procurement for Pennsylvania businesses;
• The financial impact to host communities such as inadequate trucking routes and transport of contaminated water which is produced due to the type of drilling and fracturing method;
• Property rights of both those leasing land and those adjacent to leased land; and
• The cumulative impact of existing and likely proposed drilling in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, including an analysis on water quality, air quality, land use, habitat, and human health.
As Ferlo said, “Most of my constituents fear ecological and environmental disasters caused by deep well drilling and the threat it already poses to our precious water reserves, streams, rivers as well as the detrimental impact it is having on host communities. We’ve only begun to come to grips with the environmental damage the coal industry inflicted on Pennsylvania. Destroyed streams and drinking water, mine subsidence, mine fires and acid drainage, mercury pollution, and more have left us a legacy of cleanup that will span decades and centuries. With this experience behind us, we simply can’t afford to repeat those mistakes.”
A moratorium will delay the start of much-needed jobs in the state, but may lead to changes that can save lives in the long run.
On Monday, HBO will televise Gasland, its documentary on the issue. (Monday, June 21 at 9:00 EDT.) Gasland exposes the hazards of domestic natural gas drilling, and won a special jury prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.
Congressman Mike Doyle (D-Pittsburgh) serves on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Senator Arlen Specter (pretending-to-be-a-D-Philadelphia) sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Sen. Robert Casey (D-Scranton) sponsored the Senate bill. You can contact all of them and urge them to pass the bills before it’s too late. And you can contact your state legislator to urge her/him to support Ferlo’s bill.
It’s a good idea to learn more about the issue now, before a drilling company agent knocks on your door, offering a contract to drill on your property.
For more information:
• Gasland, on HBO, Monday, June 21, 2010, 9:00 EDT
• H.R. 2766, Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009
• S. 1215, Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act
• PA Department of Environmental Protection