Keeping (and Calculating) Tabs on Gas Drilling

Explosion at a Crosstex Gas Extraction Site

In the past decade, our elected officials and regulators opened state forests and impoverished rural communities to natural gas drilling. Environmentalists began talking about animal deaths, land fragmentation, and water, while residents got the short end of the stick. Here’s how it happened in Pennsylvania, and why I think we need to take a look at the economic justice implications of gas drilling.

In 2008, the gas industry had more than 52,000 producing gas wells in Pennsylvania. Between 2003 and 2008, drilling increased 42%, while new enforcement staff hires inched up only 9 percent. My guess is that rates of inspected wells are lower than the unemployment rates; maybe even lower than unemployment rates of the 90s!  The Pennsylvania-based group Damascus Citizens estimates that there are approximately 30 Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) inspectors in the entire state. New York, Texas, and other gas producing states tell a similar story – fewer than 20 enforcement staff in NY are responsible for more than 12,000 wells. In 2008, Texas had 106 enforcement staff responsible for inspecting more 250,000 wells.

In Pennsylvania, profits from leasing state forests, previously dedicated to financially benefit the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), can now be directed to balance the state budget, transportation infrastructure, or any other project the legislature deems urgent. In a state with a projected General Fund tax revenue shortfall of upwards of $500 million, this is what makes gas drilling so economically and politically important. For every problem Pennsylvania has, the once complex solution is now simply, drill. Drilling can plug the state budget. Drilling can improve transit infrastructure. Cash from drilling can keep open homeless centers and libraries. If we invest wisely, gas drilling may even reduce recidivism and dropout rates. Drilling could end world hunger.

Fracking destroys property values of nearby land owners. See this home water well destroyed.

Sarcasm aside, the lack of cash that threatens to close soup kitchens and counseling centers, is opening doors for the gas industry. With people desperate for income, people are also desperate to sign leases that promise thousands in royalty checks. Sadly, the industry is largely unaccountable to anyone; including those who have signed leases. In Texas, Chesapeake Energy boasted that they could offer big royalty checks and bonuses to residents. They neglected to mention winding pipelines through urban centers like Dallas-Fort Worth.

In another instance of deceit, the gas industry offered filmmaker Josh Fox approximately $100,000 for drilling on his 19.5 acre property in the Philadelphia watershed. Fox said they described it as “a fire hydrant in the middle of a field”, but the Pennsylvania DEP advises anyone thinking of signing a lease to get a lawyer. Hire a lawyer? Remember that time when Philadelphia’s libraries had rolling closures and politicians strategized to balance the state budget with gaming revenue from unpopular and unbuilt casinos? That time is still today.

For rural Pennsylvanians with light wallets, hiring a lawyer is unmanageable. And Pennsylvanians are not alone in this situation.

The industry is capitalizing on the depressed economy in other ways, too. Under no obligation to transparently display lease rates to residents, the gas industry offers leases of whatever sum they can get away with. Baring neighbor to neighbor organizing, no one will know. No one will know until, like in Dimock, PA, the checks come in – some for $97/month, others for $6,000/month. (Not) keeping up with the Jones never cost this much.

But where economic injustice from drilling is most serious, is where drilling has caused water contamination of privately-owned wells.  In the most well-known cases of contamination, gas has migrated into people’s well water. This has caused methane buildups that have created explosions in Dimock, PA, Cleveland, OH, and other municipalities around the country. Not only has methane migrated into well water and posed a fire hazard and/or sparked an explosion; elevated gas concentrations can and have caused headaches, nausea, rashes, and other health problems. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, increased gas concentrations can cause headaches, nausea, brain damage, and eventually death. In these cases of water contamination, individuals have been instructed not to drink or bath in the water in their homes. That leaves Pat Farnelli of Dimock, PA buying bottled water with her monthly food stamp allotment. Again, the poor are paying the price. Paying for vet and doctors visits, paying for road repairs from increased truck traffic. Paying for water.

Forget the value of your home if you don’t have safe water. Forget stable property values. The landowners may have enough money to move, depending on the size of their royalty checks, but how likely is it that a person can buy a new home, without being able to cash in on their now ruined property? The poor are paying for new homes, trading communities.

I’d expect this type of manipulation from the oil, gas, and coal industries, but what’s dangerously unique in the case of gas drilling is that it is almost entirely unregulated.  Exempted from the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Superfund Law, and federal waste treatment laws, the industry pledges to us that its extraction techniques are safe. Don’t worry. Take my worthless word, the industry pleads. After drilling catastrophes in Dimock, PA, Bainbridge, OH, Dish, TX, and Garfield County, CO, the industry assures landowners that those explosions and water contamination instances, won’t be replicated in Wayne County, PA, or the hundreds of other locations slated to see drilling in 2010. Without disclosure of an estimated 500+ hydrofracking chemicals used to fracture the Marcellus Shale formation and release natural gas, the industry says there’s no reason to be apprehensive. Lee Fuller of EnergyInDepth says the fluid is comprised of “household materials you’re just as likely to find in the kitchen cupboard and beneath the kitchen sink.” A good enough assurance to drink the Koolaid, er the hydrofracking chemicals? I guess that might have something to do with your financial position.

It may be manipulation by the gas industry, but it’s abandonment by government.

With no federal oversight or regulation, and an overburdened state government with inadequate inspection capacity, John Hanger, Secretary of the DEP, tells us that though there will be inevitable environmental damage, drilling is worth it.  Drill in the northwest, the sourthwest, the northeast, and central Pennsylvania. Tourism may be Pennsylvania’s second largest industry, but don’t forget to drill in the forests. More than a third of state forest land has already been leased, so drilling on these protected sites shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

Ignore any misgivings that Pennsylvanians rely on private drinking water wells more than residents in any other state but Michigan. Pretend that Pennsylvania mandates construction standards for gas wells. Imagine that there is a single wastewater treatment plant in the state that can remove Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) from fracking wastewater. Disregard the fact that each well costs four million to build and more to maintain.

Politicians and regulators can mislead themselves in these respects, but at what cost? The benefits are obvious for Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates Onorato and Corbett who have taken campaign contributions from the gas industry at $60,000 and $350,000 respectively, but the rest of us have much more to lose than to gain from drilling.

As Philadelphia Councilman Jones said, “all of us have one thing in common; we drink that water.” In other words, while we may be miles from the drill pads, noise pollution, and bitter lease struggles, millions of people are connected to this energy struggle.  The plan to drill for gas within a single watershed can directly affect millions of people via water contamination and externalized costs. For this reason, we must all push back on aggressive moves to drill without Environmental Impact Statements, Health Assessment studies and other common sense measures. More than that, we must restore our economy by enabling people to stay in their homes, drink their water, pay their mortgages, and attract people to our protected lands to recreate.

2 Responses to “Keeping (and Calculating) Tabs on Gas Drilling”

  1. 1 Robert Colgan Jun 15th, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Excellent. Well written. (no pun intended at all)

    Thank you for the sound article, Amy.

    It is clear that the real plan is for the gas companies to gain as sizeable a foothold as they can before the citizenry wakes up to the threat. Speed and time are on their side.

    It may already be too late————-unless a genuine moratorium, truly accurate EIS study, substitution of non-toxic frac fluids, full oversight, etc.

    Why do I get the feeling it’s like a wish list for a Thanksgiving dinner compiled by Dachau inmates…?

    Thanks again.

  1. 1 oil engineering jobs – How To Go From Shovel Ready To People Ready In A Green Job Market? by Chris Marentis Trackback on May 19th, 2010 at 5:02 am
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About Amy

Amy is the Pennsylvania campus and community organizer with Energy Justice Network.  She helps coordinate PA's KEY Coalition youth network.

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