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Two Hundred People Filled the Hall; Philadelphia City Council Passes Resolution Supporting Three-Year Statewide Moratorium on New Gas Drilling Permits

October 7, 2010


Denise Dennis (seated, to R of flag) receives standing ovation at City Council hearing on Marcellus Shale gas drilling last week after her testimohy detailing her reasons for refusing to lease land her family has passed down for 200 years, a unique African American heritage she is determined to preserve.


Two hundred people stood in line to pass through that metal detector, sit on those hard benches and show their concern for up to 6 hours at last week’s City Council hearing on Marcellus Shale drilling impacts in our region.  Formal testimony raised concerns about this new, unconventional technology from a variety of perspectives: scientists and engineers, state and local agencies, advocates for clean water and air, climate and public health.  Academic and faith-based perspectives lifted the debate about environmental harms and economic costs of gas drilling to a high level of moral engagement and eloquence.

Scientists and citizens are clamoring for more time for serious scientific study, and public debate, before drilling expands statewide and before it begins a few months from now in the Delaware River watershed, which includes the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers.

On Thursday, September 30th, City Council responded quickly to Tuesday’s hearing by passing a resolution in support of PA Rep. Tony Payton’s bill calling for a three-year moratorium on all new Marcellus Shale gas drilling permits statewide.

To tell you the truth, I’m proud.  Proud of City Council, especially the leadership from Councilman Curtis Jones, who championed the hearing last Tuesday, and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, who introduced this new resolution.  I’m proud of this community, which showed up in such large numbers on a weirdly sticky, rainy, globally-warmed Tuesday.  I’m proud of Philadelphia, which has proven that we care not just about our own short-term interests but about our neighbors, our climate, and the future.

I wanted to share some serious details about the Council hearing testimony, including new scientific findings from the Academy of Natural Sciences suggesting salamanders are disappearing in heavy gas drilling areas, relative to other areas.  Salamanders are an indicator species, a canary in the coal mine of shale gas drilling.

The City Council resolution has weight, but it’s symbolic – by itself it won’t protect so much as a salamander, let alone an aquifer; won’t keep any toxins out of our water or air, won’t delay drilling in our watershed long enough to do a cumulative impacts study.

But I’m a little distracted right now.

I just found out that PA Homeland Security, and maybe the FBI, have been tracking activities I’ve been participating in for longer than I thought they were.  I can’t say I’m shocked or stunned, but there’s something a little gut-twisting about seeing a nonviolent activist training I attended in 2009 quoted in one of those bulletins created by ITRR (the Institute for Terrorism Response and Research, the private entity paid $103,000 by the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security to track activists like me who advocate for clean water, clean air, scientific study prior to gas drilling, stands which apparently threaten the well-being of the state).

Snooping Away:  Hall of Shame

The particular training I’m referring to took place in Ithaca, New York, late last fall.  I go there often because one of my favorite families on the face of the planet live right outside Ithaca in Ecovillage—one of those places where people live without cars to the greatest degree possible; farm, compost, use solar and geothermal, and in general build close community while going easy on the earth.  This family happens also to be a bunch of funny and loving redheads who are raising their autistic son and poet daughter with such tenderness that I’m never not moved to tears by the beauty of their way of life.  They used to live in Philly and we’ve stayed tight.  The mom invited me to the training.

So to see the Homeland Security Bulletin report on this nonviolent activist training hurt oddly, in a way that knowing our screening of GASLAND was tracked by Homeland Security didn’t hurt.  Maybe it’s because Ithaca, New York is a sort of sanctuary for me, a home away from home; and the type of nonviolent activists whose belief in and commitment to positive social change is so deeply sincere, so creative, so thoughtful and so peaceful creates a deep sense of hopefulness for me which can be otherwise elusive.

Here is what the Bulletin had to say about our activist training, which included such activities as group facilitation skills and “deep listening” when speaking with landowners who are deciding whether to lease or not to lease.

“Training provided by the Ruckus Group does not include violent tactics such as the use of IEDs [roadside bombs] or small arms,” the 2009 institute report states, damning by faint praise.  “The Ruckus Group does, however, provide expertise in planning and conducting demonstrations and campaigns that can close down a facility and embarrass a company.”

Stephan Salisbury, in his article “Surveillance, America’s Pastime” (10/4/10), commented about this surveillance:  “To spell it out: this counterterrorist monitoring institute was providing public-relations alerts for private energy companies at tax-payer expense.”

I can, in fact, concur that during the three-day training there was no mention whatsoever of IEDs or small arms, while we talked about outreach to allies, deeper approaches to diversity, understanding carcinogens, and maintaining a sense of humor in the face of depressing environmental destruction.  The training atmosphere was sweet: small intimacies shared over hot chocolate and fresh oranges while a soft snow fell.

But I can certainly understand why people potentially capable of embarrassing a company responsible for gross environmental violations and/or harm to human health are perceived as threatening.  Evidently for many months the state of Pennsylvania, and possibly the federal government, has entirely lost its ability to distinguish between the public good and private, for-profit companies which are literally making a killing.

One drilling company, Anadarko, earned $6.7 billion in profits last year, according to its own reports cited by PA Rep. Greg Vitali in a speech in Harrisburg two weeks ago.  Range Resources, which benefits from the expertise of Governor Rendell’s former right-hand man on the gas drilling issue, has paid less in taxes in the past few years than any other company in the nation, according to Business Week.  As Bill McKibben told a substantial audience at the Academy of Natural Sciences in September, “Fossil fuel extraction is the most profitable activity known to man.”

So like I said, I’m a little distracted right now.  My sanctuary was violated, and that’s worse than having somebody rifling through my recycling here in Philadephia, having our documentary film screenings attended by undercover folks or infiltrators, or knowing there are infiltrators on our email lists without knowing exactly which companies received which activists’ names.  I felt better for a minute when PA Homeland Security chief James Powers resigned last week, since he seemed particularly unable to understand that turning activists’ information over to private companies is not cool.

But the ACLU reported last week that the Homeland Security’s contract with ITRR, widely referred to in the media as “cancelled” (because Governor Rendell said so) in fact is still active through the end of this month, when it runs out.  And we have reason to suspect Rendell knew more than he says he knew about this surveillance.

For the best read yet on this topic, Stephan Salisbury’s article is deeply thoughtful:  “Surveillance, America’s Pastime: A Hall of Shame of State Snooping, Prying, and Informing.”

And if you want to know more about last week’s City Council hearing on Marcellus Shale drilling, check out Philadelphia Weekly or the September 28th or October 1st Public Record.  This website will post a summary of scientific findings and questions, powerful testimony by Denise Dennis and others, and the Philadelphia City Council resolution in full.  Go, Phillies… this entire beloved community, that is.


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