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“Real Stimulus” Claims Debunked

July 12, 2010

An essay straight out of the fossil fuel PR industry appeared in the Weekly Press July 7, full of false claims, exaggerations, and denial.  It’s worth taking a look at it in detail.

Called “The Marcellus Shale: A Real Stimulus,” the article begins by quoting “a Penn State study” claiming that the Marcellus Shale industry is jobs-and-income nirvana, predicting the industry will generate 111,000 jobs by 2011.

The Marcellus Shale is a geological formation underneath 63% of the state of Pennsylvania.  Drillers mix about 5 million gallons of fresh water and an average of 20,000 pounds of toxic chemicals per well to fracture, or “frack,” the shale deep underground to release methane, a greenhouse gas.  When it leaks into the atmosphere, scientists say methane is 25 to 62 times more potent than carbon dioxide in its contribution to global warming.  Drillers expect to drill tens of thousands of wells in Pennsylvania; the state environmental agency, DEP, anticipates issuing over 5,000 drilling permits in 2010 alone.  New York City and Syracuse have de facto bans on drilling in their watersheds due to the threat of water contamination, and New York State has a moratorium on drilling due to environmental issues.  Many environmentalists want this new drilling, popularly termed “fracking,” to be banned outright due to the slew of health-harming toxics it spews into water and air.

The study predicting vast numbers of Marcellus Shale jobs in Pennsylvania was referred to by Currie as a “Penn State study.”  But the study was sponsored by a gas industry coalition, which paid friendly researchers at Penn State to produce the report.  Penn State Dean William Easterling has questioned the study, stating in a recent letter that in the first study [of two studies] “we found flaws in the way the report was written and presented to the public,” including a failure to properly disclose gas industry funding of the report.  “The authors may well have crossed the line between policy analysis and policy advocacy,” Easterling concluded.

John Quigley, Secretary of the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR), was even more direct in criticizing the most recent Penn State study in coments he made on June 24, 2010 in Harrisburg, “The study predicts ridiculous job figures, absolutely ridiculous…. The industry has bought itself a big microphone.”

What is The Commonwealth Foundation?

The byline for “The Marcellus Shale: A Real Stimulus” is Katrina Currie, identified as a “Research Associate for the Commonwealth Foundation,” which in turn is described as a public policy education and research institute located in Harrisburg.

Ben Waxman, a journalist with Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, checked into the Commonwealth Foundation a while back, and wrote this blog post about them on YoungPhillyPolitics: “The Commonwealth Foundation is… the Pennsylvania version of the Heritage Foundation– a constant source of right-wing propaganda and misinformation. In the last few months, they have led the opposition to funding for mass transit, expanding healthcare coverage, and legislation designed to protect the rights of workers to organize.”

Who is Stunting Whom?

The Commonwealth Foundation article posted by Katrina Currie in last week’s Weekly Press claims that a severance tax (a production tax on Pennsylvania’s highly productive Marcellus Shale gas wells) would “stunt Pennsylvania’s economic recovery.”

In fact Marcellus Shale drillers, mostly multinational corporations based in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere — with billions invested by companies from Norway, France, and other countries – are finding Pennsylvania gas drilling to be highly lucrative.  The claim that the Marcellus Shale industry would be hurt by a severance tax because of its “infancy” has been widely debunked.

“Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets,” a  report released this May by the nonpartisan government watchdog group Common Cause, shows that the natural gas industry spent $4.2 million on lobbying in Pennsylvania since 2007.  The industry has given $2.85 million to political candidates in Pennsylvania between 2001 and March 2010.  Spending in both categories has spiked since 2008.  Common Cause reported that current market value for the Marcellus Shale is estimated at more than $1 trillion.

There are legitimate arguments against a severance tax – specifically that it could create a dangerous dependence on cash from a distinctly destructive extraction industry – but Currie’s absurd argument that a severance tax would “stunt” Pennsylvania’s economic recovery holds no water.

The recovery actually being stunted by the Marcellus Shale industry is Pennsylvania’s environmental recovery.  After decades of cleanup across the state, streams and rivers are being impaired again.  To name just one stunting in progress, the Monongahela River has been so impaired by Marcellus Shale drilling waste that bottled water advisories went out to over 325,000 people who drink its water in western Pennsylvania, in 2008 and 2009.  DCNR Secretary Quigley said that due to dumping of Marcellus Shale toxic waste, “the Monongahela River is a disaster” in terms of water quality.  “Do not come into contact with that water,” he advised.

A Matter of Fact: Water Contamination

Nationally, Abraham Lustgarten of ProPublica has documented over 1,000 instances of water contamination due to unconventional gas drilling.  Yet Katrina Currie repeats the industry’s mantra that “over one million wells using hydraulic fracturing since the technology was developed in the 1960s, and not a single instance of direct groundwater contamination has been tied to the process.”  She quotes the DEP’s director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Management as saying, “There has never been any evidence of fracking ever causing direct contamination of fresh groundwater in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.”

How can they say that?  The DEP fined Cabot $240,000 this spring for contaminating an entire aquifer in Dimock, PA, asking them to replace drinking water for fourteen families with contaminated wells due to gas drilling.  The DEP quote she uses is discounted by definition.  So what about this “one million wells” claim?

First, “fracking” is a term used differently by the industry and by the public.  When the industry uses it, they intentionally collapse together two very different technologies, one old and one new.  When they use the figure of “one million wells since the 1960s,” they are talking about hundreds of thousands of shallow, low-risk conventional gas wells which are completely different in scale, danger, and toxicity from unconventional gas drilling.

Unconventional gas drilling uses approximately 67 times more water and 67 times more toxic chemicals per frack, compared to conventional wells.  The public, understandably, has latched onto the term “fracking” to refer to high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing in combination with horizontal drilling.  That’s a mouthful.  So the industry exploits the popular use of the term “fracking” and lumps the older, less risky, shallow wells together with the new, dangerous, environmentally destructive unconventional deep gas drilling.

Unconventional deep drilling is a new technology which has taken off only since it won a serious batch of exemptions from federal environmental law in 2005.

Second, look at her phrase, “been tied to.”  Because the industry bought itself exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Law, and other federal laws in 2005, it armored itself legally against EPA oversight and citizen complaints.  Due to legal protections provided by the 2005 Halliburton loophole, the burden of proof lies with the victim, not with the corporation.  Drillers always claim toxic constituents could have been there before – and they win.  Even when a rare cancer is linked to a fracking fluid constituent present in the victim’s drinking water, as happened to Laura Amos in Pavilion, Wyoming, the drillers win; or they drag the court case out so long that the victim runs out of funds and time.  In other words, they have better lawyers, and they wrote the law anyway.

Meanwhile, as Josh Fox’s film GASLAND documented, unwary, often poor rural landowners who become seriously ill after ingesting and bathing in contaminated water, or breathing air full of gas drilling fumes, may get their medical expenses covered by gas drilling companies – if they are lucky, and if they sign a non-disclosure clause promising not to go public with their illnesses.  Non-disclosure clauses help the industry to keep maintaining its innocence even when clusters of brain lesions, respiratory diseases, nervous system disorders, cancer, and other illness results from gas drilling.

Third, when the industry talks about “fracking,” they separate out a very specific, brief “moment” in the drilling process – the actual hydraulic fracturing stage, which lasts about four days average – from the drilling process, which lasts about 30 days, and the entire extraction process, which can be ongoing for months and years.

Since a great deal of contamination can occur from every stage of extraction, including drilling (before fracking begins); transportation and transfer of fracking fluid, storage and transfer of toxic flowback fluid, and methane gas storage, transportation and treatment, the industry leaves out 100% of those common pollution incidents when it refers to “fracking.”  Yet polluting explosions, fires, blowoffs and blowouts, methane migration, chemical spills and safety violations are frequent and cumulative.

The Department of Environmental Corrections has found over 400 violations by Marcellus Shale drillers in Pennsylvania in 2010 alone.  Since drilling sites are operated without inspectors present over 99% of the time, and many sites are remote, entirely out of the public view, one can only imagine how many violations are not caught at all.

Jobs may come, of course.  BP is paying 40,000 workers a day to clean up its disaster.

Our laws are not protecting us.  The EPA is unable to protect us; they are still designing a new two-year study, the first of its kind, regarding the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water sources.  The only way we can protect our beautiful land, fabulous clean water, healthy food from healthy farms, healthy fish from healthy streams, wildlife, domestic animals, public health, and atmosphere is to put an immediate moratorium on unconventional gas drilling statewide.

Delaware River at Risk: Protesters Gather July 14th

Demonstrators calling for a moratorium on unconventional gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed will attend the Delaware River Basin Commission meeting on Wednesday, July 14th, at 1 pm in West Trenton, arriving by train, car, van, and bus from rural areas and from cities as far away as Chester, Philadelphia, and New York City.  Look for news coverage about this event in these pages and at http://www.protectingourwaters.com.

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