Sunday, October 26, 2014


It was shale, specifically,shale gas drilling for natural gas, that pulled me into the land of politics.

Up until fall 2011, I was only vaguely aware of elections, candidates, public policy.

I’d enjoyed Pete Seeger’s lyrics when he sang in junior high assembly.

I’d been part of a sit-in in high school – dragged along by friends.

And I watched some of the Watergate hearings with my much more politically savvy college roommate.

After that - I voted. Yes. Took my kids to the local polling place, pulled levers. Made sure they got “I voted” stickers to wear on their jackets.

Paid no attention until the next election.

Then shale.

I voted for Tom Corbett, our current governor, because he had the proper views on the few key issues Christian voters pay attention to.

I didn’t know – and probably wouldn’t have cared -  that his largest supporters were gas and oil companies.

Or that he had signed the Grover Norquist “No Tax” pledge.

Or that he would invite those with most to gain from expanding shale gas drilling to set the rules and recommend fees as part of his Shale Gas Advisory Commission. 

Why would any of that matter? Who had time to pay attention?

Somehow, during the summer of 2011, information seeped through my complacency.

News of toxic waste water released into Pennsylvania’s rivers.

Reports of wells contaminated by fissures far underground.

Analysis of the untaxed profits.

In September 2011 I found myself feeling like someone who has been sleeping in a backyard hammock, only to wake and find her house on fire. Were we really defunding environmental protection agencies at the same time we were handing over permission to shatter the linings of subterranean aquifers?

Were we inviting shale gas companies to a free-for-all that rivaled the western gold rush?

I went to a community screening of Gasland, and watched Josh Fox walk through creeks and rivers like those I love most. Watched the green wastewater slide into quiet streambeds. Watched him light the water from homeowners’ taps.

Then I went to the first Freedom from Fracking symposium in Philly, and listened to Dr. Sandra Steingraber talk about water: millions of gallons per well, removed from the ongoing water cycle, lost in deep fissures in the earth, or pumped back out so full of toxins there’s no way to ever reclaim it.

Water seemed to be a common theme, in a way that reminded me of the poisoned water of Jeremiah, punishment for a culture of dishonest leaders and deceptive practice.

I went back to Philly two weeks later to march in the first Shale Gas Outrage, drove to Penn State to protest outside a natural gas industry Marcellus Summit.

Since then I’ve visited shale gas drilling sites with the League of Women Voters and member of Pennsylvania’sResponsible Drilling Alliance. 

I’ve sat in meetings with activists who believe natural gasdrilling should be banned. Completely. 

USGS: Record Number of Oklahoma Earthquakes
And I’ve sat over dinner with women from states around the country struggling under the burden of shale gas drilling. One told me quietly that the Wind River Valley of Wyoming now has the worst air quality in the country. Another mentioned in passing the earthquakes of Oklahoma, a region with little earthquake activity until wastewater deposits were injected deep into the earth. Her sister’s home was knocked off it’s foundations. “And she didn’t have earthquake insurance. No one in Oklahoma had earthquake insurance."

This weekend the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania is hosting its second annual Shale Drilling and Public Health: Days of Discovery, with experts in environmental toxicology, shale gas impacts on human health, endocrine disruption, occupational hazards for shale gas workers. The resource guide developed from last year’s conference, Shale Gas Extraction and Public Health, has been translated into several languages, and used by citizens in other states and countries looking for ways to understand the implications of shale gas drilling on air, water, land, and human health.

I don’t support a ban on shale gas drilling – not in regions where wells are already in place. Resources will be used, wisely or unwisely, and wells once drilled can cause harm if abandoned.

But I do believe that drilling in key watersheds is too dangerous to allow. The Delaware River is the sole water supply for about 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. So far there has been a moratium on fracking in the Delaware River basin, but Governor Tom Corbett has pushed hard for that moratorium to be lifted. In July 2014, he passed a budget that cut Pennsylvania’scontribution to the Delaware River Basin Commission in half, “a move environmentalists and Democrats say is retaliation for the commission's failure to enact rules governing oil and gas development in the basin.” 

I also believe that companies that demonstrate repeated disdain for environmental regulations should lose their license to drill.

Between January 2008 and 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection cited 47 well operators for more than 900 environmental health and safety violations. Chesapeake Appalachia, a division of Chesapeake Energy, had the most, with 109 violations.

In May 2011, the company was fined $1.1 million for a February 2011 Washington County tank fire, and for contaminating several drinking wells in Bradford County. 
David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, questioned the deterrent value of a $1 million fine for the nation's second-largest gas producer, which last year earned $1.7 billion in profits on $9.4 billion in revenue, and whose chief executive, Aubrey K. McClendon, famously earned a $75 million bonus in 2009.
 "This is mostly a slap on the wrist," Masur said.
Masur’s question of deterrence was validated as Chesapeake has continued to compile violations and fines: $600,000 in Pennsylvania in 2012 for cavalierly destroying a waterfall and wetlands that happened to be in the way; tenmillion in West Virginia the following year for more destruction of wetlands and streams. The company has been repeatedly sued for systematically underpaying royalties to leaseholders, forced to repay $7.5 million to Pennsylvania landholders in 2013, and currently under investigation for a class-action suit claiming the company “wrongfully retained” as much as $5 billion in unjust profits since 2007. Chesapeake is also facing felony racketeering and fraud allegations in Michigan, as well as an antitrust investigation. 

Range Resources, another company that regularly finds itself on the short-list of most frequent violations, was fined 53 times between 2008 and 2012, with 17% of wells drilled reported in violation. Despite a stated philosophy of “Be good stewards for our shareholders and our environment,” Range has been repeatedly sued by landowners for both environmental harm and misreported royalties; in 2013 the company agreed to a $87.5 million lawsuit brought by Oklahoma leaseholders. In September, 2014, Range was fined $4.15 million for violations at six different impoundments

Protecting Our Waters: Black Waters and Broken Promises
For years, critics and concerned observers have raised questions about when and how often wells are inspected, how accurately rates ofviolation are reported, what oversight accompanies disposal of the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater each well produces. Our governor has repeatedly dismissed those concerns, recently approving shale gas drilling in parks and state forests. with assurances about the safety of natural gas, the excellent environmental record, how good it has been and will be for the state.

The recent fines and lawsuits suggest otherwise, as does a sober critique of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection released in July by state Attorney Eugene DePasquale, The report makes clear that there has never been a system for timely inspection of wells, no comprehensive approach to oversight of waste-water disposal, ineffective response to citizen complaints, reliance on industry personel to complete inspections and evaluations, dependence on voluntary compliance with regard to “adversely impacted” water supplies. An executive summary concludes: 
the meteoric growth of the shale gas industry caught the Department of Environmental Protection unprepared to effectively administer laws and regulations to protect drinking water and unable to efficiently respond to citizen complaints. 
Much has been written about the revolving door between the shale gas industry, the DEP,  and Pennsylvania’s legislators.

And about the fact that recent Pennsylvania legislators have received more than their share of shale political contributions, from industry coalitions as well as corporate CEOs.

While those companies, and individuals, have surely benefitted, Pennsyvlania as a whole has seen little of the promised prosperity from shale gas drilling. The few jobs created by the industry  have not kept pace with jobs lost in education and infrastructure, and little of the billions in profit have found their way into state and local budgets (in part due to the “No Tax” pledge that swept current officials into office).  

A key issue in the election next week will be the fact that Pennsylvania, alone among the major shale states has no severance fee on gas extracted, relying instead on an impact fee. In effect, natural gas companies are paying on average less than 1,9% tax  on profits made in our state. Imposing a severance fee of 5% to bring the state in line with neighboring shale states would raise an estimated $1 billion a year in revenue, and would send a message to the shale gas industry that it no longer owns the state of Pennsylvania.

Shale gas is not the first resource that Pennsylvania has been both blessed and cursed with. Lumber, then coal, divided communities, benefited some while leaving others poorer than before, and scarred the environment in ways still unresolved. Shale promises a legacy more damaging than either. Carelessly linedwells don’t get stronger over time. Toxic chemicals leaked into underground fissures aren’t gone, just dangerously forgotten.

We sometimes drive through the ghost town of Centralia, the coal town lost to an underground fire that still burns to this day, half a century from its start in 1962.

No one planned it.

No one prepared for it.

No one paid much attention until it was far too late to manage.

I’ll be thinking of Centralia when I go to the polls next Tuesday.

This is the ninth in a series looking at specific issues of importance in state and local elections, as an extension of my 2012 series "What's Your Platform?"  

Earlier posts:  
What are Workers Worth, September 1, 2014
Back to School Lament, September 7, 2014
Privatization and Elementary Math, September 14,  2014
Who is Allowed to Vote? September 21, 2014
Let the People Draw the Lines, September 28, 2014
A Prayer for the Broken, October 5, 2014
 Dreaming of Home, October 12, 2014
Vote Smart, October 19, 2014