As Rebecca Roter stood on Broad Street, heavy clouds threatening rain overhead, she brandished a bottle of murky water labeled “Bradford County.” This, said Roter—a volunteer with the nonprofit Protecting Our Waters—was water drawn from private wells near natural-gas extraction sites near the Susquehanna River. Her question was: Would you want to drink this? The answer from the dozens gathered outside the Doubletree Hotel yesterday, was a resounding “No fracking way.”
The demonstrators were there to protest a speech that former Gov. Tom Ridge, now a consultant contracted by the Marcellus Shale Coalition, had scheduled with the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce about natural-gas extraction from the vast natural-gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a formation miles under the earth’s surface stretching from New York and Pennsylvania to Tennessee. Over half of Pennsylvania sits on top of these potentially rich natural-gas deposits. Ridge was here to speak with the Chamber of Commerce about the potential economic benefits of natural-gas extraction in Pennsylvania. It could be a huge boon to the state and the city for the job growth potential and revenue income, which would mean a boost in tax base and investment for the city, says Liz Ferry, a policy manager at the Chamber of Commerce.
Which is exactly why Protecting Our Waters volunteers were handing out literature to passers-by, making speeches and performing skits. Their goal is to attract the public’s attention to an issue they say has been glossed over and flagrantly lied about by the natural gas and energy industry. As it began to pour, a male actor in a suit and tie wearing a placard reading “Marcellus Shale Coalition Representative” leaned toward a female actor wearing the sign “Potential Investor.” “Beautiful lies,” he said under the plastic blue tarp. “We like clean water. We like clean air.”
“People are getting sick,” says Roter, a dual resident of Susquehanna and Bucks counties who has a house in Brooklyn Township, which is about 15 minutes from Dimock—a town now known because of its tainted water. “When you have the drilling, you have truck traffic 24/7 that degrades the roads. You have noise pollution. You have water contamination,” she says. Transporting the gas involves heavy equipment, including compressor stations, which she says are loud, big and emit carcinogenic chemicals.
Even so, natural gas has been heralded as a savior to the nation’s energy woes. Advocates to shale drilling argue the gas burns cleanly and, more importantly, can be found abundantly all over (or more accurately, under) the nation, including a large portion of Pennsylvania – meaning more jobs, lower energy costs and less dependence on foreign oil. Drilling has already occurred in the upper Susquehanna water basin. But opponents want to make sure it doesn’t happen in the Delaware or Schuylkill rivers.
To extract gas, a company drills down thousands of feet and then feeds a horizontal well with a mixture of sand, gas and a chemical cocktail to crack the shale and release the gas. Demonstrators said the process, known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is far from being the clean technology TV commercials and industry reps like Ridge claim.
Roter says her husband signed a lease over for $2,500 per acre three years ago, which totaled more than $100,000, to let energy companies drill on their land. Her neighbors signed similar leases after salespeople knocked on their doors and explained that drilling was safe and clean. But that hasn’t been the reality, she says.
“When you have a gas well head, the pressure of the gas sometimes gets too great, so to prevent explosion they just burn it off.” She says her neighbors live near four huge flares. “It looks like South Philadelphia, like the refineries,” but there’s no zoning so the industrial operations happen where people live. “There’s no regulation on the books for gas well flaring, which to me is egregious because it’s one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas. Roter says another friend of hers lived next to a gas-well pad in Dimock, next to a separator, which separates natural gas from other gasses. He was recently hospitalized because he couldn’t breathe.
Iris Marie Bloom, who heads Protecting Our Waters, says that the Department of Environmental Protection is not regulating the industry adequately. If it were, violations wouldn’t happen. “I know personally of 60 families in Bradford County alone that can’t drink their water anymore, but are having their water replaced by Chesapeake Energy,” she says, rattling off a list of hazards involved when the natural-gas industry moves into a neighborhood: open-air wastewater pits, trucking waste to Ohio, and massive industrial equipment like flares. “This industry is out of control,” she says. “They keep saying that it’s safe and experience keeps proving that it’s not the case. We’re asking them to ban frack pits, which enable toxic substances, radioactivity, carcinogens, neurotoxins to enter the environment in all kinds of ways. The problem is much bigger than any single fine or any single policy.”
Just this week, Chesapeake Energy Corporation was fined a little over $1 million by the state Department of Environmental Protection for an explosion and for contaminating drinking water.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” says Mark Schmerling, a photographer who has been documenting natural gas and coal, who displayed his photos at the rally. “You think a million dollars will make people do the right thing? You can fine them all day and it’s the cost of doing business.”
Because of the Halliburton loophole, a clause inserted into the 2005 Energy Policy Act by former Vice President Dick Cheney, oil and gas companies are exempt from disclosing what they’re injecting into the ground. “Wells get contaminated, people oftentimes don’t realize right away, so by the time their water catches on fire or it looks so bad, they’ve been drinking bad water for a while,” Roter says.
“It’s water that’s at the core, unfortunately, of our energy production, whether it be nuclear or it be fracking,” says Al Price, a grocery store worker from Fairmount and a volunteer with Protecting Our Waters who was distributing literature at the protest. “Our most precious natural resource is water, and they’re bearing four to five million gallons of water per well, hoping that most of it won’t come back up. They know what’s down there are radioactive materials, heavy metals, and their frack fluids. We’re here because the Pennsylvania constitution enumerates that it’s the state’s responsibility, not just for current generations but for future generations, to care for the water and the air.”
President Obama has given the Department of Energy 90 days to look at ways to improve the safety of drilling for natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has already started an extensive review of how drilling affects drinking water.
The two Western Pa. men have greatly differing views on key issues that will have a huge impact on the coming years, especially as federal stimulus funds dry up, national health-care reform standards are enacted and Pennsylvania is forced to go at its state budget alone. Our collective apathy to the race doesn’t make the issues less important.
There are only a couple bits of information we can all really agree on: The Marcellus Shale is huge and it contains copious amounts of natural gas. Here’s something else you should agree on: That drilling for said gas could lead to several different environmental disasters. (And probably will if we let this happen).
The imagery of shale drilling is unfortunate: forcing a pipe deep into subterranean rock layers and emitting large quantities of salty liquid to release the gas trapped inside. But this is no rape of our environment; rather, it’s a consensual act of love between man and Earth, producing offspring in the form of a viable, relatively clean fuel source that we so desperately need.
Gov. Rendell offered a teaspoon of his own criticism, saying that he was “very concerned about what happened.” As well he should be, as the gusher was tangentially his fault.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4