For decades, gas and oil companies have enjoyed seemingly unshakeable influence over policy and politicians. So it s nice to think that they might be paying attention to recent events, in which citizens have spoken so loudly and clearly that decisionmakers have been forced to listen.
Yesterday, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted unanimously to temporarily table a request by XTO Energy (ExxonMobil Corp.) to withdraw 250,000 gallons of water a day from a stream in Broome County, NY known for its unique trout habitat. It wasn t a full meeting agenda that did it but the receipt of over 7,000 emails and hundreds of letters in just over a week from residents and organizations across the region, thanks to an outreach push by Delaware Riverkeeper Network and its allies.
The key argument made was that issuing the permit would be premature and risky given the current moratorium on drilling permits in the Basin and work now underway to assess the impacts of gas development, including water withdrawal. Hopefully the commissioners will ultimately heed this logic; they'll certainly have another chance to hear it from more residents because they did agree to another citizen ask: to hold a public hearing on the application in the area that would be most impacted by the withdrawal.
In March, Governor Corbett established the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to study the economic, social, and environmental issues related to natural gas development in the state.
Given what s at stake, this is a great idea. But there s a big hitch. Actually, two:
- The Commission is stacked with drilling companies and Corbett s campaign contributors; and
- Corbett has repeatedly stated that jobs are his top priority when it comes to drilling, over all other considerations.
As a Pennsylvania resident, you know that many communities are already feeling the impacts of under-regulated industrial drilling on their water, health, and quality of life. Yet the Governor s commission doesn t include public health experts, impacted residents, or citizen-based environmental organizations.
What to do?
As the spring temperatures climbed, they streamed into the park and kept on coming. Hundreds of people from across New York State gathered in Albany for a Fracking Day of Action to collectively ask policymakers to do what it takes to safeguard vital water resources, public health, and the environment from dirty gas drilling.
Many of us also became Water Rangers as part of the launch of a public awareness and media campaign supported by the Clean Water Not Dirty Drilling network. The campaign invites New Yorkers to become part of the growing team of citizens taking action to protect our water and communities from dirty drilling.
Endorsed by over 40 national, state, and grassroots organizations, the Day of Action reflected a growing movement of citizens concerned about the damaging impacts of a rush to drill in other states. We collectively showed determination to ensure that communities and the environment are protected before industrial gas development occurs (and even consider that it not occur at all).
That Pennsylvania s DEP stands for Department of Everything Permitted as opposed to Environmental Protection has long been a joke among gas drilling activists. But now the agency itself has brought the image a step closer to being reality.
According to a new directive, DEP inspectors must now secure pre-approval from the Secretary before being able to issue gas company violations or taking related actions. Leaked from the agency to the media, the memos are short and informal. But they pack a punch straight into the gut of efforts to protect public health and the environment from the mad rush to drill in the Marcellus Shale.
On a practical level and in combination with continued budget cuts to the agency the action spells additional paperwork, delays, and backlog. More broadly, it takes influence over enforcement away from trained civil servants working in the field and puts even more in the hands of the Secretary, a political appointee chosen by avowedly pro-drilling (and gas industry bankrolled) Governor Tom Corbett.
In the world of dirty energy, things often go awry. In just the last few weeks, there s been ongoing news of the nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, yet another in a never-ending series of oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, and natural gas-related fires in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
And what do many policymakers choose to do about such problems? Attack the very regulatory systems designed to protect people and the environment, for example through anti-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) bills and calls for less federal meddling in the gas industry.
Risk is often defined as a product of two factors: probability and impact. Yet when it comes to the endless quest for fossil fuel energy, it s become all too easy to minimize the latter.
An oil spill on the scale of what happened last year in the Gulf of Mexico was considered so unlikely that BP s drilling operations in the region were exempted from full environmental review. But now there s enough concern about the lasting impacts of what happened that the National Institutes of Health recently launched a major new study to track how residents who assisted with the clean up are faring.
Building nuclear power plants along the coast in a seismically active part of the world may have seemed like a risk worth taking to satisfy Japan s energy needs. Now that the plants are nearing meltdown after a major earthquake and tsunami, this calculation is questionable perhaps particularly from the perspective of the 140,000 people ordered not to go outdoors because of radiation and the plant workers whose lives hang in the balance as they try to prevent further disaster.
There s nothing like a long, frigid winter to prove what a great idea it is to have well-insulated, energy efficient buildings. President Obama spotlighted research underway at Penn State to develop more such structures during a visit to the campus last week and while there chose not to focus on the university s less laudable energy-related activities.
Maybe that s because in the recent State of the Union address, the President put natural gas in the same category as clean energy sources like wind and solar. This approach jibed with that taken by the Penn State s Board of Trustees, which voted in late January to get the school s steam plant off of coal and onto natural gas.
Say I decide to change my job, and figure that with a higher salary I ll be set. But a few years later, I m in financial hot water: I forgot to calculate the tripling of commuting costs and the car, clothing, and entertaining required by my new position.
Pretty shortsighted and irresponsible of me, right? But somehow when the gas industry uses the same method to peddle its wares, all too many policymakers plagued by budget woes are dazzled and eager to buy.
Take the widely touted 2010 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute that promises hundreds of thousands of jobs and billions in revenues in the Marcellus Shale region. Oops! It didn t even look at costs associated with gas development, like road and bridge repairs, declines in farming and tourism, or reduced property values and taxes. The same fuzzy math guided a recent report funded by the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association that glowingly assessed jobs and money coming, and still to come, from gas drilling in that state.