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Come to the Fracking Fracas at Philadelphia City Council Public Hearing

September 23, 2010

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.

3 Comments
  1. Kara permalink
    September 26, 2010 8:36 am

    This is great to raise awareness and work to protect our water and food! But a few things, one the FRAC does not protect all waters, this continues to be perpetrated and is false. Please look into it more and do not just listen to corporate DEm politicians, or large BiNGO’s that invest in gas themselves. Also, as reported in a previous post, the NYC council did not request a 7mile buffer around their watershed. In fact one sellout council member led it and a few signed on to this proposal whihc was defeated because it was so divisive, it would try to protect some areas and leave drilling to others and also stultify the effort to achieve a straight out ban on drilling. Here is a good review of these issues and of the movie gasland I saw on Facebook:
    http://www.counterpunch.org/jereski09172010.html

    on the Frac Act: “At the Federal level, some environmental organizations, who have played into the gas industry’s strategy of divide-and-conquer, for instance, by supporting ‘special’ areas or carve-outs to be granted protections which poorer, disenfranchised communities would not receive, were also involved in drafting (largely by the NRDC) and introducing the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act in Congress. This legislation has been deceptively presented as protecting all the nation’s drinking water through what would be a repeal of the gas industry’s exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act. See the link to a letter here in which some groups suggest that the FRAC Act would protect all of our water, claiming “(e)very American deserves clean drinking water”. The FRAC Act is consistent with NRDC lead counsel and Riverkeeper Director Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s advocacy for gas as a transition fuel, in ads for the industry-sponsored Clean Skies Initiative (e.g. in the New Yorker magazine February 11, 2010 issue, at P.61). The truth is that the FRAC Act only protects public water supplies (or water that could – because of flow rates and amount – serve as such). This would leave effectively unregulated and unprotected a vast landscape of rural America, where individuals and small-town communities are supplied with water from private wells and/or small aquifers.”
    Thanks for your thoughtful advocacy!

    • Iris Marie Bloom permalink
      December 2, 2010 12:54 pm

      Thanks for your comments — yes, people should be on the lookout for fronts like the industry’s Clean Skies Foundation. Correct, the FRAC Act would not protect private water sources such as private drinking water wells and should not be misunderstood or promoted as if it does; nonetheless restoring the Safe Drinking Water Act and all the other Halliburton Loophole exemptions for gas drillers is important. It was the Hazen and Sawyer report itself, conducted by engineers hired by the City of New York to assess risks from high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling (“fracking” for short), which concluded that fracking poses catastrophic risks to New York City’s drinking water and should not be done within 7 miles of the City’s watershed.

      Regarding bans in specific areas, the City of Pittsburgh just banned drilling within its city limits. In doing so, they are not abandoing the surrounding region; in fact they are energizing the movement by providing an extremely well-written and thoughtful Resolution which addresses principles of self-government and the right to clean, healthy air and water.

      Thanks for your insightful and inciteful comments and information!

  2. mjm permalink
    October 2, 2010 9:26 am

    This is a clear explanation of natural gas drilling using new hydrofracking technology. While this has been much written about this technology and the process of extraction over past months, the focus here on its unconventional aspects clarifies what is still experimental about this new drilling practice.

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