Come to the Fracking Fracas at Philadelphia City Council Public Hearing
Against a backdrop that could hardly be more dramatic – exploding gas pipelines, gas well blowouts, the Monongahela River (which supplies Pittsburgh’s drinking water) declared “impaired” due substantially to fracking water withdrawals and fracking toxic waste; state government paying a murky “anti-terrorist” entity over $100,000 to spy on clean water activists; and over 1400 officially acknowledged environmental violations from unconventional gas drilling in Pennsylvania in the past 2 ½ years – Philadelphia’s City Council is holding a hearing Tuesday, September 28th at 10 AM regarding the environmental and economic impacts of hydraulic fracturing in this region.
The public is advised to bring photo ID and to arrive at the northeast corner of City Hall by 9:30 if possible, to be seated in time for the hearing.
Councilmembers Jones, Kenney, and Reynolds Brown co-sponsored the resolution calling for this hearing. The Marcellus Shale industry has lobbied City Councilmembers and will testify at the hearing, arguing that they are bringing jobs and cash to the Pennsylvania economy and that natural gas is a “transition” fuel, based on the controversial assumption that gas impacts climate less negatively than coal. However, R. Howarth, Ph.D., of Cornell University, has published a draft study suggesting that when cradle to grave extraction costs are taken into consideration, gas compares poorly to coal in terms of impact on climate. And renewable energy advocates generally agree that natural gas extraction will hinder and delay, rather than facilitate or encourage, the transition to renewables.
The debate in this region, although often oversimplified in the press as “pro-drilling” and “anti-drilling,” is presently about whether, given the enormous problems elsewhere and the newness of the technology, rulemaking for drilling – and therefore all permits – should be held off until a cumulative impacts study can take place specific to the Delaware River watershed; until the EPA study is completed; and at least, as Representative Phyllis Mundy proposes (HB 2609) in her bill for a one-year statewide moratorium, until emergency planning could take place.
The resolution begins, “Whereas, The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) recently stopped all new Marcellus Shale drilling in Northeastern Pennsylvania region until such time as appropriate environmental regulation is in place…” An earlier resolution, introduced by Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown, had called on the DRBC to ban fracking in the Delaware River watershed until an environmental impacts study is done. However, the DRBC has now permitted several test wells, two of which residents say have already cause contamination to surface water and to one family’s water well. The DRBC has also approved one major and two lesser water withdrawals for fracking. On September 15th they announced that they would issue their own rules for fracking in the Delaware River watershed by October 15th, giving the green light for the first fracking permits in this region to be issued late this year or early next year.
In short, the DRBC is presently ignoring calls from Congressman Maurice Hinchey and from Philadelphia City Council for an impact study to precede fracking in this region. The industry’s plan for intensive development in the Upper Delaware River region involves drilling tens of thousands of wells.
“Fracking” has become the popular, but somewhat misleading, term used by the general public to describe unconventional gas drilling, a new technology for deep gas drilling which has proliferated only since 2005. There has been no major scientific study of the environmental impacts and human health impacts of this technique, because it is so new. In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney requested, and won, many federal environmental exemptions for unconventional gas drilling in a loophole which particularly benefits Halliburton, the company which first developed the secret chemical formulas now used in fracking deep rock layers such as the Marcellus Shale. This loophole became known as the Halliburton Loophole. Dick Cheney had been the CEO of Halliburton prior to serving as Vice President. In Congress right now, fierce debate continues over passage of the FRAC Act, which would partially close that loophole, end the secrecy, require drilling companies to disclose the exact type and proportions of chemicals they use in fracking, and restore the full authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The industry continues to lobby hard against the FRAC Act, which is co-sponsored by Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey.
One of the most important, and much-repeated, industry PR tactics, clearly not understood as a tactic by most journalists who report on this issue, is to claim that “fracking has been going on for 60 years.” While true as a point of fact about conventional fracking, this claim collapses together two very different processes. Natural gas extraction in shallow formations, or “conventional” gas drilling, has been going on for decades, and has had many problems with methane migration but does not use anything close to the 4 to 5 million gallons of clean water per frack, per well, which unconventional gas drilling uses in deep formations like the Marcellus Shale. Further, the Marcellus Shale formation is full of salt, heavy metals like arsenic and barium, and is extremely radioactive, with samples showing Radium 226 at hundreds of times the level safe for release to the environment and thousands of times the level safe for drinking water. Thus, every single frack of an unconventional well brings back to the surface dangerous contaminants, along with toxic chemicals, which there is currently no way to safely treat.
Conventional fracking also uses a much tinier proportion of toxic chemicals. Unconventional gas drilling is a more accurate term for the shale gas drilling, which often goes a mile and more deep and a mile and more horizontally. It is this unconventional gas drilling, or “high-volume hydraulic fracturing in combination with horizontal drilling,” which has led to ProPublica reporting over 1000 instances of water contamination across the country, which is contributing to the new designation of the Monongahela River as “impaired,” and about which the public rightfully has so many questions.