•  HOME 
  •  BOOKS 
  •  WWP 
  •  DONATE 
  • Loading

Follow workers.org on
Twitter Facebook iGoogle

Remember Earth Day

Gas explosion deepens opposition to hydraulic fracturing

Published Apr 18, 2010 9:40 PM

Faced with organized public opposition from Ohio to Pennsylvania, companies that profit from the expansion of natural gas wells using hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region are engaged in a campaign to sell the idea that the practice is entirely safe, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Fracturing involves the pumping of millions of gallons of water containing sand and chemicals deep into underground fissures to release natural gas.

In a commentary entitled “Shale Concerns Overblown,” Lou D’Amico, president of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, stated that hydraulic fracturing “has not impacted local wells” and “is not a threat to water supplies.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, April 9)

Nothing could be further from the truth. The 2005 energy bill, which was pushed through Congress by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, exempted the oil and natural gas industries from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the main federal law that ensures drinking water quality.

D’Amico also conveniently ignored an explosion that occurred in a gas well in western Pennsylvania’s Washington County on March 31 at a drilling site operated by Atlas Energy, Inc. It caused flames to shoot 100 feet into the air, visible for more than seven miles.

Janice Crompton reported that “Property owners living near the site of a gas well ... said they had been trying for days to reach state officials about noxious odors at the site.” George Zimmerman, who filed a lawsuit against Atlas Energy last year, alleged that the company “ruined his land with toxic chemicals” such as arsenic and benzene, used in hydraulic gas well fracturing. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 1)

The same day, Kathie O. Warco wrote in the Washington Co. Observer-Reporter that “This is not the first problem. During a three-day period in early December, a discharge went into a pond feeding a stream.”

This January, Pennsylvania environmental officials fined Atlas Resources $85,000 after a series of violations at 13 wells, including spill of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto ground around the sites. This action by the state’s Department of Environmental Protection followed reports of other incidents, including a fish kill in one of the state’s recreational lakes and the release of toxic chemicals into the environment. The web-based news service propublica.org provides more details on these incidents.

D’Amico might be forgiven for not keeping up with small-town media, but the incidents of exploding wells and even houses, wastewater leaks, fish kills and other environmental concerns stemming from hydraulic fracturing have been so numerous that in March the Philadelphia City Council unanimously adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on shale-gas development on privately owned land in the eastern part of the state.

Vital drinking water could be affected

In February state regulators opened a public comment period on a proposal for drilling permits in the Delaware River watershed, which provides drinking water to 15.6 million people.

Like corporations everywhere that voice concern over the cost of government intervention when it comes to monitoring the harm their operations cause, the natural gas industry, through mouthpieces like D’Amico, preaches “states’ rights” to block federal oversight.

The natural gas drillers know they can count on politicians like Gov. Ed Rendell and Pennsylvania state legislators to be more lenient, as they look to this rapidly expanding industry as a cash cow to offset budget deficits. In January the state accepted $128.5 million in bids from natural gas drillers to develop 32,000 acres of Pennsylvania state forests, increasing the amount of state land open for drilling to 692,000 acres — one third of the publicly owned land.

Previously, revenue from the lease of state land would go to land conservation efforts. However, Rendell changed existing state laws to divert the income from these leases to general operating revenue.

After abandoning a similar proposal in 2009, Rendell is again suggesting a tax on drillers, but environmentalists want moratoriums on the practice until environmental impact studies can be done.

Under growing pressure from environmental groups and a concerned public, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is set to begin a study of hydraulic fracturing this spring. It would be the most expansive look yet at how the natural gas drilling process can affect drinking water supplies.

The findings could affect whether Congress decides to repeal the exemption that shields fracturing fluids from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has also launched an investigation into whether hydraulic fracturing is contaminating water supplies and posing other dangers to the environment and public health. The oil and gas industry strongly opposes this new approach.