Shale Gas Drillers Open Political Offensive in Beaver County
by Randy Shannon
February 26, 2010
Wall Street bankers are investing big bucks in gas drillers as they spread across the state buying up mineral rights and drawing up leases to establish drilling operations. Stock prices of Atlas Energy, Range Resources, and Cabot Oil and Gas are soaring as they race to accumulate ownership of the enormous shale gas deposit in western Pennsylvania.
There are two big issues arising from the exploitation of the state’s shale gas resource. One issue is fair taxation that remunerates the people of the state for the loss of a resource that cannot be replaced. This is the gas severance tax that drillers pay to all states with substantial gas drilling. The other is protection of our water supply without which our property is worthless and our lives are at risk.
Pennsylvania does not have a gas severance tax. The Republican Party in Pennsylvania used the 2009 budget crisis as leverage to stop the imposition of the severance tax. This cost the state up to $100 million in lost revenue this year, at an equal savings to the gas drillers who can raise their campaign contributions to the Republicans.
The public awareness of this rip-off has grown to such an extent that Governor Rendell has proposed a severance tax for the 2010 budget equal to West Virginia’s. The Democrats running for State Senate and State Legislature are supporting this position. Even Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner, who are taking $thousands from the drillers in campaign contributions, are saying they support a “reasonable” gas severance tax.
The gas drillers have taken a fall back position: if they are going to have to pay a tax, then they want more concessions from the state to give them a free hand in conducting their operations on the ground. In this Beaver County Times article from Feb. 12th (http://tinyurl.com/yap6azf ) the spokeswoman from the Marcellus Shale Coalition threatens to “move resources to shale formations in other states” if Pennsylvania does not make concessions.
This is a tired and overused empty threat. Pennsylvania has the greatest gas deposit in the United States that will last for decades. Drillers are rushing in, not hesitating in case they might have to pay a severance tax like in other states. Most importantly, gas prices are now relatively low, so that the longer it takes to drill, the more we delay, the more Pennsylvania will profit from higher future gas prices.
The shale fracturing or ‘fracking’ process as it is now practiced creates life-threatening environmental issues. To frack one well the driller takes around 6 million gallons of water from local creeks and rivers. They mix in a half dozen volatile hydrocarbons, such as benzene that cause respiratory failure and death in all mammals. They also mix in heavy metals, cyanide, and other chemicals that cause cancer. These chemicals are being released into the water table, on the surface, and in our waterways.
They are also buying up legislators in order to guarantee that their profits are maximized. State Legislator Jim Christiana, whose campaign was funded by the House Republican Campaign Committee, is working overtime for the drillers.
The drillers are unfolding a political offensive to ease their entry into Beaver County. Following their article of complaint in the Times, the drillers are holding a public meeting hosted by Representative Christiana. This “Marcellus Shale Informational Event” will be on Friday, March 5, from 8:00am to 10:00am at the Club at Shadow Lakes, 2000 Beaver Lakes Blvd., Aliquippa. Those planning to attend must call 724-728-7655 to RSVP. This will be a typical sales meeting with hand waving and big numbers thrown out to dazzle the audience into thinking that they, not the drillers, will be the beneficiaries of this wealth.
Based on experiences in central and southwestern Pennsylvania, folks have found that once the drillers gain access to their land, the owners have no say in what is done. People have experienced cancer, blown water wells, dead vegetation, poisoned animals, and polluted water.
The reason for this is that under the Bush administration, the EPA was called off the job of monitoring gas well fracking. The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted the 247 chemicals and the practice of “fracking” from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Without this “Halliburton Loophole,” the process would be less profitable due to the extensive testing, protective measures, and clean-up that would be necessary to safely frack shale deposits.
Drilling shale gas deposits under the Halliburton Loophole in the western states resulted in tragedy for scattered farm families, but not enough to cause a political backlash. Now that the “wild west” drilling practices that have been so profitable are practiced in Pennsylvania and New York, the impact even from one year of drilling has been measurable.
Judging from the impact of 700 wells on the water supply and the lives and property of the victims, we can project that drilling another 10,000 wells using current “wild west” practices will devastate Pennsylvania communities and possibly destroy potable water for millions of residents. In reaction to this looming disaster, Sen. Robert Casey has introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (FRAC Act), S 1215, that closes the Halliburton Loophole.
In a brazen act of servility to the greed of the drillers, PA Republican Legislator Jim Christiana has introduced a House Resolution 609 in the Pennsylvania Legislature to express the sentiment that Pennsylvania does not want the Federal Government to enforce the Safe Drinking Water Act in regards to shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania! The resolution cites the expected monetary returns from drilling, the drillers claim that no pollution occurs, and phony issue of states rights not have safe drinking water.
The shale gas drilling is also a big issue in the campaign for Governor. Governor Rendell has given the drillers vast acres of state lands to drill in order to make up the budget shortfall negotiated last year. He has also announced plan to lease tens of thousands of additional acres this year. While Rendell supports the gas severance tax, he has made no effort to counter the assault on the environment.
In reaction to criticism and concern across the state, Rendell announced that he will double the staff of the Department of Environmental Protection to monitor the drilling. However this doubling still leaves the staffing levels below those of two years ago when they were slashed at the demand of the Republican State Senate. Even if the DEP staff were doubled again, the problem is that the DEP has not been charged with protecting our water supplies.
The PA DEP is only “monitoring” activity. It is not enforcing any regulations concerning chemical contamination by the drilling activity. Even worse, the DEP is allowing the drillers to dump drilling water laden with heavy metals and carcinogens into the Monongahela River. The water is highly toxic when recovered from the fracking process and it is placed in tanks and treated to remove the volatile hydrocarbons to meet DEP regulations of volatile hydrocarbons. However, it is then diluted with other wastewater and dumped into the river without DEP testing for heavy metals such as arsenic, selenium, mercury, lead, and other carcinogens. This recently resulted in an official warning to communities using Mon River water for drinking water.
The DEP claims that they cannot test for chemicals in the poisoned water if they don’t know what the chemicals are. And there is presently no requirement for the drillers to reveal the contents of the fracking fluids. Hearings will soon start in Representative Waxman’s committee of the US Congress to look into the fracking chemicals. However, the DEP can act if the people of Pennsylvania demand it. Dumping of unknown chemicals in the river can be halted until their effect is determined. Democratic legislators in Pennsylvania have called for a suspension of drilling until this issue is resolved.
Democratic Party Gubernatorial Candidates Dan Onorato and Jack Wagner have accepted donations from the drilling companies. While they have position papers talking about severance taxes and safe drilling, both candidates have avoided addressing the urgent problem of contamination of our water supply and destruction of farmland and animals. Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Joe Hoeffel has accepted no money from the drillers and is calling for “strong swift action to ensure drilling is conducted safely and responsibly.”
Robert Schmetzer, vice-president of PA 4th CD Chapter of Progressive Democrats of America, and Democratic Party Chairman of South Heights Borough released the following statement:
“I have been told that Onorato, Wagner, and Corbett took money from the drillers. Please send Jacks position on drilling. The Repubs took a stand on drill baby drill !….. Dems want the gas without destroying Pennsylvania’s land, water, or air as guaranteed in our constitution.
Protection of our people ,their families, and health is the #1 issue….. Bush/Cheney stripped the federal Acts clean of protection. Bob Casey is trying to correct this. 2005 moratorium stripped the Clean water act; safe drinking water act; clean air act; superfund act; and NEPA – national environment policy act. Cheney wanted to pave the highway
for Halliburton energy.
There have been 247 chemicals from MSDS sheets recorded. They have caused air, water and land contamination in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming by using toxic, carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting chemicals. The companies don’t have to tell what they are pumping underground. The DEP and EPA don’t have any cases of well pollution as told by the drillers.
That is because they don’t have to report to any agency. Presently there is no Federal agency monitoring the frac chemicals because companies don’t have to tell. They also don’t have to tell of any accidents. This issue is explosive and will be a huge issue in this election. Shellshocked…!”