As we all know, there’s a big old deposit of natural gas sitting under a large portion of Pennsylvania, mostly in the west, center and north, with a little shale crossing the Delaware River headwaters that flow down to our fair city and gush from our taps.
The natural-gas industry, largely based in the Midwest, learned of all this and decided that it was a good idea to get that gas, for a number of reasons: Because it burns more cleanly than gasoline and coal; because it’s from our backyard and not an Iraqi’s; and because American workers would do the work (maybe) to get the gas out, refine it and sell to Americans to use.
So they brought their equipment and drills and skilled workers to the Keystone State, and in three years there have been increasingly voluminous protestations of dumping, of people getting sick, of spills, and complaints of tainted water. That’s because the process, colloquially known as fracking, involves using lubed-up drill bits the size of a man’s head to bore very deep holes, which then turn and drill horizontally. Then sand, water and “proprietary fluids” (as the industry calls them) get pumped into the shale to break it up and release the gas.
Yesterday, in an effort to (responsibly?) deal with this mess, a couple state representatives announced the formation of the Citizens Marcellus Shale Commission, which will tour the state compiling citizen testimony about the natural-gas industry in Pennsylvania. The open hearings start today and will hit Philly on Sept. 6 (and coincides with the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s Gas Insight Conference downtown next week).
Former state representatives Dan Surra (D-Clearfield and Elk Counties) and Carole Rubley (R-Chester and Montgomery Counties) will head the volunteer-run commission, which is comprised of members from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, the Clean Water Coalition and others.
“We’re going to try to bring some balance to the debate,” says Surra, a veteran pol who’s quick to commend Gov. Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission on its work, and who agrees that economic development from the gas industry is vital.
But “on the other hand,” Rubley says, “there are possibilities of widespread problems from an environmental point of view, so we want to ensure the rights of citizens to clean air and clean water; and also the protection of public health will be part of the discussion as we move forward with this.”
Surra says the citizens’ commission will supplement the work of the governor’s Shale Advisory Committee. “This is a very big deal in Pennsylvania,” he says. “It’s something that we have to get right.”
The citizens’ commission was formed in response to the governor’s advisory commission report, which had some good recommendations in it, Rubley says. But the citizens’ commission’s investigation will be broader, covering the social impacts of drilling, the impact of a tax for possible environmental mishaps (since there is no drilling tax in Pennsylvania), public health, and habitat—things that weren’t covered by the governor’s commission.
“Much of the Marcellus Shale plays are taking place in some of the most pristine and beautiful and somewhat protected parts of Pennsylvania—that is, our state forests and gamelands,” Surra says. “We have to be careful about the incremental industrialization of our public lands. I mean, I’ve heard stories already of hikers and hunters and fisherman, they’re all walking on our public lands and they’re being met by armed security guards.”
Hunting and fishing are sustainable, as well as tourism, but industrialization will threaten those industries, he says. Harrisburg will begin drafting legislation that will impact all these key sectors, as well as potentially impact people’s lives. It’s vital to conduct a formal fact-finding mission “to try to educate our lawmakers so they can do a better job,” he says.
“This is really a group of concerned citizens hearing from other citizens, and this is what democracy should be all about, and much of what we have lost, the best of what our government is,” says Barb Jarmoska, a commissioner from Responsible Drilling Alliance.
The open hearing on Sept. 6 will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Free Library of Philadelphia (1901 Vine St.). Testimony will be compiled in a report that will be submitted to the state Legislature and governor so they’ll have something to chew on when they get back to work in the fall—“when they’re deliberating on future laws and regulations,” Rubley says.
Those wishing to testify must register before the hearing by calling 717.255.7181 or visiting citizensmarcellusshale.com.