Susquehanna River Basin Commission to vote on massive water withdrawals for fracking tomorrow morning, has threatened disrupters with arrest.
NPR State Impact Pennsylvania reporter Susan Phillips reports today that the Susquehanna
River Basin Commission, which will meet tomorrow to consider accelerated permitting for massive water withdrawals from that river for fracking, is open to having arrested those who disrupt the meeting.
Last week, the SRBC released a new set of rules for Thursday’s meeting, which include having attendees show photo I.D., forbidding public comment, and no video or taping by anyone but credentialed media. The media will be sectioned off in a specific area, as will anyone who wants to hold up a sign.
Susan Obleski, the spokeswoman for the SRBC, says after activists shut down the December meeting, Commissioners are committed to getting through Thursday’s agenda without disruption.
“It’s not our desire to have people arrested,” said Obleski. “But if it comes to that, then that’s the action we will take.”
Obleski says Capitol Police will be present, as well as plain clothed security officers. The SRBC has hired a private security firm as a consultant.
Protesters will certainly be there anyway, including a delegation from Phily-based Protecting Our Waters, which is urging citizens to call officials in opposition to the water withdrawal permits going before the commission tomorrow.
Organizer Iris Marie Bloom says that "we intend to exercise our first amendment rights. We have no desire to get arrested or go to jail, but we are willing to lose our freedom for a short period of time because the stakes are very high and somebody's got to step up."
In a media advisory issued today, Protecting Our Waters points out that the permits are going to be approved despite the lack of a cumulative environmental impact study and a state health impact study. You can read more about it here.
Natural gas companies drilling in Pennsylvania's stretch of the Marcellus Shale have become major media spenders, investing in billboards, newspaper advertisements and even financing a highly promoted a local hospital expansion, to the point where some local citizens feel they no longer have a voice. "It’s kind of like the company town of coal-mining days," says Rebecca Roter, a resident of Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County.
Fed up with the fracking messages dominating local media, Roter and her neighbors decided to lease their own billboard space, to host warnings about the impact of fracking. Now, she says, they're being censored by the billboard company.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett seems to really not want the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to deliver clean drinking water to the people of Dimock, where methane — allegedly from natural gas drilling — has contaminated water wells. A Jan. 5 letter to the EPA from state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, reported by State Impact Pennsylvania, “makes it clear he thinks the EPA has no idea what it’s talking about, when it comes to methane migration in Dimock.”
The EPA, for its part, can't decide whether it will come through for Dimock or bow to Corbett's pressure.
Rendell chides, gas industry chortles: scenes from Rendell's attempted public shaming of Marcellus Shale drillers
There's a lot to be said for sitting in the back of a room.
That's where this reporter was stationed Wednesday night, as former Governor Ed Rendell gave addressed the Shale Impact 2011 conference currently being held at the Philadelphia Convention Center — and it turned out to be a perfect place to observe the reaction of several hundred gas industry folks to Rendell's chiding the industry for having "screwed up so bad there are protesters anywhere anybody associated with this goes."
Chief among the gas industry "screw-ups" cited by Rendell were its failure to offer to pay a tax on gas production (which it does in every other state with shale gas), and its poor environmental record.
This wasn't the first time the (now-former) governor told the industry it would be in its own best interest to pay a severance tax: he did so several years ago during a gas industry conference in Houston.
But Wednesday's remarks went much, much farther than before. While emphasizing his own support of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, the governor had harsh words for the industry, accusing it of being "willing, it appears to me, to ride this out as long as possible without a legitimate, fair tax."
"It's a mistake. It's one of the things turning the tide of public opinion against you."
The governor seemed to give a nod to anti-drilling protesters, emphasizing (to an audience that seemed less than receptive to the message) that protesters were not "militants" and that "They're raising serious and legitimate issues. They express the fears of not just a few militants but the fears of a lot of good hard-working Pennsylvanians about what's going to happen to their land, about what's going to happen to their water supplies, and bout what's going to happen to their waterways."
Perhaps even more significantly, the Governor delivered a laundry list of accusations of poor environmental practices, citing everything from figures of spills and other accidents — a report by the Pennsylvania Land Trust finding more than 16,000 violations by Marcellus Shale companies; a report by the AP that found that nearly a fifth of fracking wastewater had gone unaccounted for and, therefore, Rendell said, "the logical assumption is that the waste was dumped into Pennsylvania waterways."; a finding by public utility companies that treatment plants downstream from fracking wastewater facilities have been struggling to keep cacinogenic contaminants below legal limits; and other seemingly-damning findings that Marcellus Shale gas companies have been reckless when it comes to the environment and public health. I've transcribed a hefty chunk of the speech below.
Rendell finished his speech to applause — but severely muted applause. As soon as he finished, the large room was taken over by winking, nudging, and an undercurrent of anger.
"That's why they call him Fast Eddie," I heard one gas exec explain to another.
On the escalator down, another gas exec described the speech to a colleague who hadn't heard it: "Oh, he said how we're taking away kindergarten from little kids," was the gist of it. The colleague rolled her eyes.
Afterward, I ran into a scientist acquaintance at the conference reception, who was in a mild state of shock at how vehemently everyone around us had hated that speech. "It seemed very middle-of-the-road to me," he said. "He told them, 'Yes, we want you here.'"
Rendell's goal was clearly to shame the industry into making voluntary changes. Judging from the crowd's reaction, he's a long way from doing that.
Exceprt from Rendell's speech:
The industry continues to screw up — you've screwed up so badly there's a movie that got an Academy Award nomination called "Gasland," ... screwed up so bad that there are protesters anywhere anybody associated with this goes. And the protesters grow stronger and deeper in number every day. The protesters used to be in the northern tier, now they're in Southeastern Pennsylvania. The protesters are beginning to be more than just gadflies, they're beginning to be a serious, long-term problem. And the things they're talking about are not incorrect. They're raising serious and legitimate issues. They express the fears of not just a few militants but the fears of a lot of good hard-working Pennsylvanians about what's going to happen to their land, about what's going to happen to their water supplies, and bout what's going to happen to their waterways.
When I spoke in Houston I said the industry should go public and say it wants to pay a fair and reasonable tax .. that will return benefits to the people of Pennsylvania. ... and to the Pennsylvania environment, That tax needs to go to replace the money in Growing Greener. But the industry hasn't moved and the industry is willing, it appears to me, to ride this out as long as possible without a legitimate, fair tax. It's a mistake. It's one of the things turning the tide of public opinion against you.
You have to understand the context, in which you pay a tax in every other state, you have to understand the context in which this is playing out. ... Governor Corbett had to cut from many programs ... Every one of those programs that got cut or eliminated has a group of advocates. They're not wackos, they're not militants. they're people who care very much. And they see $2 sliced form their program,... and each one of them develops a rallying cry. And the rallying cry is why aren't we taxing those Marcellus Shale companies that are making 64% return on investment of 48% return on investment. The fact that the Marcellus Shale companies don't pay a severance tax has become well known to every advocacy organization in the Commonwealth and has become the whipping boy of those groups.
One report by the Pennsylvania Land Trust .. found between January, 2008 and August 2010 there were 16,014 violations accrued by 45 Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale drillers. Of these, 1,056 had the most potential impact on the environment. ... 155 violations were discharges in waterways of industrial waste, meaning fracking solution. ... These violations and this record of seeming carelessness ... have created a bipartisan coalition that cuts across party lines and geographic lines against shale drilling. And the opposition is growing. It's growing because of the roughly 6 million barrels of well liquids produced int eh 12-month period examined by the Associated Press, 1.28 million barrels, about a fifth of the total, couldn't be accounted for. Meaning there's no record the water was treated anywhere, so the logical assumption is the water was dumped into Pennsylvania waterways. Opposition is growing because some public water utilities that sit downwater from Marcellus Shale wastewater treatment plants have struggled to stay under the federal maximum contaminants, which can cause cancer ... and are presumed to be entering the water from fracking solutions. That's not crazies — that's utility companies saying that.
“I’m out here because my water is already contaminated,” said Susan Breese, who joined a protest against natural gas drilling in Center City Philadelphia. The 49-year old union carpenter from Susquehanna County contends that the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to extract natural gas ruined her well water with high levels of chemicals like barium and strontium. And, like other rural Pennsylvanians, she says that the industry has divided her community--to the point where some friends refuse to believe her story. “In my neighborhood, some people hem and haw. Especially those who are collecting money.”
The crowd, mostly from across Pennsylvania, crowded both sides of Arch Street in front of the Shale Gas Insight convention, protesting the toxic pollution of drinking water. There appeared to be about 1,000 protesters, though organizers say it was 1,500 and a police officer that a Gas Insight public relations person directed me to talk to said that it was only 300 or 400.
City Council members Blondell Reynolds-Brown and Curtis Jones called on the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is controlled by a committee with representatives of state governments and the Army Corps of Engineers, to require an environmental impact study before drilling is allowed in the Delaware River watershed--the source of Philly’s drinking water supply.
“We just need an environmental impact study,” said Brown. “Just show us that our high-quality drinking water will not be affected.”
Councilman Jones took the stage and led the crowd in chanting “No fracking way.” He explained how a “poor boy from West Philadelphia” became an environmentalist, and called for caution.
“If something can be created 348 million years ago, then we can wait to see if we can find regulations that could better govern this process,” he told the crowd. “348 million years, and we can’t wait another year?”
A few conference attendees bravely stood outside to take in the scene, but a much larger crowd gawked from inside, taking cell phone photos through the windows as protesters mockingly waved dollar bills in their direction (scroll to the end of the slide show for those pics). One protester appeared to be praying.
Inside, natural gas industry representatives denied that fracking has contaminated underground drinking water, despite evidence to the contrary.
“We know for decades and decades that people in northeast Pennsylvania have been able to light their water on fire,” Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy (who according to Forbes has a net worth of $1.2 billion) told gathered media. “It’s part of local lore.”
According to Daily News reporter Chris Brennan, McClendon called the protesters environmental “extremists” earlier in his speech (before this reporter made it inside).
Outside, one Amtrak employee and Teamsters member explained why his union was critical of natural gas drilling, flouting the stereotypical conflict between labor and environmentalists.
“Right now, there’s gonna’ be a lot of profit made,” said Al Loran, a 53-year old from Pennsauken, New Jersey. “But I’m looking out for the future, our kids and grandkids.”
The protesters then marched from the Convention Center to the office of Republican Governor Tom Corbett, a close industry ally and staunch opponent of imposing a severance tax on drilling. Former Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, who opened wide swaths of state forestland to drilling and opposed taxing the industry throughout most of his time in office, is scheduled to speak Wednesday afternoon.
How did today’s front page Philadelphia Inquirer story by Andrew Maykuth on the promise of natural gas drilling (“Penn State report even more bullish on Marcellus Shale”) fail to mention the recent groundbreaking New York Times investigation that found “industry estimates might overstate the amount of gas that companies can affordably get out of the ground”?
Or, that “gas may not be as easy and cheap to extract from shale formations deep underground as the companies are saying, according to hundreds of industry e-mails and internal documents and an analysis of data from thousands of wells”?
The Inquirer did note that the “study is likely to generate considerable controversy. Anti-drilling activists said past Penn State reports overstated the jobs created by gas development and failed to count the cost of potential environmental problems of drilling.”
But the documents uncovered by The New York Times constitute a factual basis for the activists’ concern, and The Inquirer should have reported it. Indeed, I’m not sure they’ve ever reported on the Times’ natural gas findings.
Reporting is an iterative and incremental process, strengthened by important, already-available information. This is true even when that information was first reported by another (behemoth) outlet. In Pennsylvania we are undergoing fast and potentially risky changes to our landscape, water supply and economy. Readers deserve the most and best information they can get.
Over the weekend, I received an email from some anti-fracking activists alerting me to two incidents of spilled fracking materials which, although different, share at least a few things in common: they invovled discharge of unknown amounts of unknown concentrations of toxic materials; they went entirely unobserved by the companies responsible; and they appear to have resulted from distubringly inept practices.
Dateline Lycoming, Co., PA: About two weeks ago, a DEP inspector visited a hydraulic fracturing well pad maintained by XTO Energy to find a valve on a wastewater tank open and spewing watsewater, some 13,000 gallons of it (according to the company), straight into the ground. The inspector was able to close the valve himself/herself.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, a local tributary was impacted as well as a freshwater spring.
The company has yet to explain why the valve was open.
Dateline Hughesville, PA: In early October, local police were alerted to reports of a truck carrying fracking fluids not wastewater, apparently, but raw chemicals that was leaking.
In an article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette the only paper in Pennsylvania to cover the incident, as far as we can tell local police chief Jason Gill said the spill might extend "35 or 40 miles."
As to what, exactly, had been spilled, no one seemed to know. "It's not hazardous at al," assured police chief Gill, "until it mixes with water."
According to Gill, the "freak accident" resulted when a strap holding in place several 100-gallon containers of chemicals broke lose and punctured one of the containers.
Sounds like a pretty strong container, doesn't it?
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Pennsylvania State Police announced yesterday that a crackdown on trucks hauling wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations yielded the following results: of 1,175 trucks inspected, 1,057 were found to be violating state laws.
To put it another way: 89.96% of all Marcellus Shale wastewater trucks were breaking the law and, until yesterday, getting away with it.
It gets better:
207 trucks had violations severe enough that they were removed from service.
52 drivers were removed from service.
The most common problems, says yesterday's press release, were "unsecured loads and inoperable vehicle lights and lamps"â not exactly comforting, considering that these trucks "loads" are highly-toxic (and possibly radioactive) water.
Common Cause Pennsylvania just released the latest numbers on gas industry donations on MarcellusMoney.org Corbett raked in at least $835,720 (incidentally, he doesn't think Shale driller should be taxed at all; wonder why that is?), while Onorato has received at least $112,800 but those numbers aren't even the only cause of concern: As pointed out by both Common Cause and an article in yesterday's DN, both candidates are having problems disclosing their contributors' employment information, which means, well, there could be more money pouring in from Big Gas that we just don't know about. Corbett's latest report isn't perfect (he failed to disclose employer information for about 3 percent of his large individual donors), but it's nowhere near as egregious as Onorato's he provided employer information for barely a third of his individual donors.
Alex Kaplan, Project Coordinator for Common Cause, tells The Clog that he doesn't think the holes in the report are intentional obfuscation, but rather, carelessness due to the quick pace of the campaign. Nevertheless, he says, disclosure is important especially in Pennsylvania, where there are no contribution limits. Kaplan said that disclosure is crucial in understanding âthe size of the influenceâ of any one donor. Technically, the candidates are breaking state law by failing to disclose employer information for any campaign donations over $250, but it's not likely any legal action will be taken, Kaplan says.
Part of the problem is that we're still living in the dark ages: Pennsylvania doesn't require computerized filing for candidates, which is the main reason these reports aren't readily accessible to the public, according to the DN. Kaplan says Common Cause has been working to change this for a long time, but the legislature (shockingly) hasn't gone along. Similarly, Common Cause has been working to set contribution limits for over two decades, but since that's proving nigh impossible, Kaplan said the organization will focus on disclosure âin a big wayâ next year.
So, let's, uh, be optimistic, shall we?
Fracktrack is CP's ongoing coverage of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania. For updates, bookmark this link or join our Google Group to receive email notifications.
At a press conference in Penn Treaty Park yesterday, Governor Rendell signed an executive order placing a moratorium on leasing more state forest land for natural gas drilling.
This author did readers the disservice of calling the event "a huge victory for environmental groups." That is simply not the case.
In fact, Rendell's order marks a largely-symbolic act, delivered too late to make much of a difference and only after the governor himself authorized several leases of state forest for drilling, over repeated warnings from his own forestry officials to the potential impact to Pennsylvania's award-winning forests of doing so.
(In fact, after being warned against leasing a proposed 40,000 acres of forest in 2009, Rendell doubled the request to the state's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, asking for 80,000 acres instead).
Rendell's power to enforce this executive order ends the moment he ceases to be an executive â I think we've got about 80 days.
Efforts to impose a meaningful moratorium on further forest leasing have to happen in the state legislature, where a small core of environmentally-minded legislators â among them Democratic House representatives Greg Vitali (above, far left) and Dave Levdansky â have fought a so-far losing battle to protect the sensitive forest land that hasn't been leased.
The key part of this equation is a decades-old provision in state law known as the Oil and gas Lease Fund, masterminded by longtime forest steward Maurice Goddard who is legendary for reviving Pennsylvania's forests during his tenure from coal and gas industry-devastated wastelands to some of the most expansive forests east of the Mississippi.
The law said this: if you lease forest land for oil & gas exploration, you put the profits of the lease back into the forests. The law not only allowed forest stewards to balance competing interests in the forests, but â most importantly â prevented the governor and legislature from using the state's forests as one big, green slush fund for their own budgets.
That precedent held for more than fifty years until, under Rendell's leadership, it was broken: last year, the state legislature raided the Oil & Gas Lease Fund for the state budget â largely in order to plug the hole left by Rendell himself when he backed down on imposing the tax on gas production that now, as a lame duck governor, he finds himself begging from a legislature with its eyes on the next executive.
What's more, an obscure provision in the FY09-10 fiscal code imposed a cap on the amount of money the DCNR may take in from gas royalties â effectively stealing for the state money that was suppoed to be earmarked for conservation, recreation, and new projects.
As DCNR's budget gets slashed year after year, the agency, rather than using the proceeds of gas drilling in its own forests for the restoration or expansion of forestland elsewhere, is increasingly forced to use that money just to fund its basic operations.
In a few words: the DCNR is increasingly becoming dependent on hand-outs from the legislature, whose members increasingly demand forest land for drilling as a condition for those hand-outs. If nothing changes, those charged with protecting our forests will increasingly be forced to sell them off.
Without new laws in place this â more than any moratorium â will be Rendell's lasting environmental legacy.
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