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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
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
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.
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