Monday, May 23, 2011

Drilling through the commons

The heat’s on the natural gas industry

Published May 21, 2011 7:31 AM

Things are heating up in the Marcellus Shale region spanning Pennsylvania and New York state. Only this time it’s not just exploding natural gas wells or flammable tap water.

Across the two states opponents of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) are upping the ante in their struggle against the powerful natural gas industry. Years of hard work to raise public awareness of the dangers of fracking and organizing to stop this industrial devastation are beginning to pay off.

On May 11 an Exxon Mobil subsidiary XTO Energy was forced to temporarily withdraw its application to drain hundreds of millions of gallons of fresh water from a trout stream tributary to the Delaware River in Broome County, N.Y. This happened after more than 7,100 people sent emails and hundreds more wrote letters to the Delaware River Basin Commission that regulates the 13,539-square-mile watershed. This victory is temporary, however, since the application can be reconsidered in 30 days, but that this opposition sprung up in less than ten days is a big plus.

One day later the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told the six largest Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers that they had to disclose how and where they recycle drilling wastewater in the area. This is another indication of growing public pressure to regulate gas drilling.

Opposition to fracking in Pa.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection had asked the industry to voluntarily comply with requests to stop sending chemically contaminated drilling wastewater to 15 treatment plants after a series of New York Times articles exposed the discharge of wastewater “containing radioactivity at levels ... far higher than the federal regulators say is safe for treatment plants to handle.” (Feb. 28-March 4)

But the DEP’s ability to oversee this industry came under serious question earlier in 2011. Michael Kramer, newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett’s appointee to head the agency, then issued an email instructing inspectors to run all drilling violations through the DEP’s central office before issuing violation notice to drillers. But public outcry forced a formal reversal of this directive.

Corbett came into office in January 2011 with the open backing and financial support of the natural gas industry. Among his first official acts was to repeal outgoing Gov. Ed Rendell’s executive order banning additional permits for natural gas drilling on state-owned lands.

Corbett also strongly opposes taxing the natural gas industry, even though polls show Pennsylvania residents overwhelmingly support a gas drilling tax. The state faces a reported budget deficit that will likely result in major cuts in spending for education and public welfare without new tax revenue.

In March, Corbett was quick to reward his gas-industry backers by establishing the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to oversee the growing gas drilling industry. The MSAC was stacked with energy executives and campaign contributors, including C. Alan Walker, Corbett’s acting secretary of community and economic development. Walker has a history of environmental problems at mines that three of his companies operated.

On April 27 more than 100 anti-drilling activists confronted MSAC’s first meeting in Harrisburg, Pa. Protesters rallied outside the hall, as others directly disrupted the proceedings for over two hours.

Towns ban gas drilling

Growing opposition to fracking can also be seen in actions taken by two small townships to limit the power of the gas industry.

On May 13, following an outpouring from residents who demanded protection from the effects of fracking, the Town of Otsego, N.Y., approved, in a 4-1 vote, a ban on gas drilling — the first rural town in that state to invoke home rule to block gas drilling as “undesirable heavy industry.” Town Supervisor Meg Kierna says the “town looks forward to having other towns follow suit.” (The Daily Star, May 13)

On May 10 the Borough Council of West Homestead, Pa., unanimously adopted an ordinance enacting a Local Bill of Rights banning gas drilling. The ordinance, drafted in consultation with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, was modeled after a similar ordinance adopted in 2010 by the City of Pittsburgh.

West Homestead Council President Dave Weir stated, “ ... we are protecting our community’s right to clean air and water as guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution. We are protecting the health, safety and welfare of our citizens, and our right to self-govern. We are very comfortable with our decision.” (CELDF media release, May 10)

Investigations energize activists

Recent investigations into fracking have helped energize gas industry opponents. On April 16 a leaked Congressional report found that fracking companies can’t identify all the chemicals they use.

The report, listing 750 chemical compounds used by 14 oil and gas companies from 2005 to 2009, says drillers injected 94 millions gallons of fluid containing at least one chemical deemed a trade secret. “In these cases, the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.” (ProPublica, April 18)

The study revealed that methanol, the most widely used chemical in the fracking process, is a hazardous air pollutant. The list of chemicals contained in this fluid includes 29 known or possible carcinogenic chemicals. It also found that in the Marcellus Shale more than three-quarters of the chemically laden drilling fluid is left underground. The report concludes that the fate of these chemicals “is not entirely predictable.”

In 2005 Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act because the gas and oil industry maintained that most of the fracking fluid remains underground only temporarily.

On May 9 Duke University released a study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that found methane levels in private water wells to be 17 times higher than average when within 1,000 feet of a natural gas drilling site.

The team of four Duke scientists tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica Shale areas of northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York. While researchers did not report finding fracking chemicals in the wells, they did raise concern for what they felt was a clear correlation between drilling activity and dangerous methane migration into drinking water.

“For the first time, a scientific study has linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire.” (ProPublica, May 9)

Two rallies are planned to continuing putting pressure on Gov. Corbett and the natural gas industry. Organizers who disrupted the Marcellus Shale Commission’s meeting plan another protest and lobby day in Harrisburg on June 7. Plans are also under way for a protest in Philadelphia when the pro-drilling industry Marcellus Shale Coalition holds its convention Sept. 7-8.

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