Pennsylvania to Become ‘Gasland’?
On the day after the midterm elections, the outline of Pennsylvania’s next battleground was clearly drawn. Pittsburgh hosted the largest conference of companies interested in the massive Marcellus Shale gas deposit, thought to hold enough gas to power the entire US for anywhere from two to 30 years. Drilling communities around the country report serious environmental and public health concerns. Pittsburgh itself already has gas development surrounding it, and hundreds marched to the conference to show their objection. We spoke to Josh Fox, maker of the documentary ‘Gasland’ and opponent of drilling in his rural Pennsylvania community. We also spoke to Leslie Haines, editor-in-chief of Oil & Gas Investor magazine.
Produced by Jesse Freeston and Malak Behrouznami.
JESSE FREESTON, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jesse Freeston at the Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg. This building is going to have a new occupant, after Republican Tom Corbett won the governor race by 10 percentage points.
TOM CORBETT, GOVERNOR-ELECT FOR PENNSYLVANIA: It’s now time to come together, to tell the rest of the world—to tell the rest of the world Pennsylvania is open for business.
FREESTON: And that business is natural gas. Pennsylvania’s race was unique in that it was fought primarily over the question of what to do with the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit. Corbett ran on the platform that the industry needs to be opened immediately and without taxation.
CORBETT: We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas if we develop it and develop it now.
FREESTON: If current estimates are correct, then the Saudi Arabia example may not be far off. Predictions are putting the amount of shale gas in the Marcellus in the trillions of cubic feet. Said another way, these estimates suggest that the entire energy needs of the United States could be met from anywhere from 2 to 30 years by the Marcellus Shale gas alone, with potential revenues reaching into the trillions of dollars, and all of this right in the middle of some of the world’s most energy-hungry cities. On the day after the midterm elections, Pittsburgh played host to the year’s largest conference of companies looking to develop the Marcellus Shale. It was organized by Hart Energy Publishing. The Real News to spoke to Leslie Haines, editor-in-chief of their flagship publication, Oil and Gas Investor.
LESLIE HAINES, EDITOR IN CHIEF, OIL AND GAS INVESTOR: The USGS geological survey is now saying this could be the second largest natural gas field in the world. Only larger ones are in the Middle East or in Russia. So it’s extremely exciting for the US oil and gas industry, but it’s going to be important for the consumer, too, because natural gas burns way cleaner than coal or oil. We have 100 years’ supply.
FREESTON: The conference featured hundreds of the world’s leading extraction companies, like Halliburton and Shell. The keynote speaker was Karl Rove, former senior adviser to President George W. Bush.
UNIDENTIFIED: This is the official Karl Rove welcoming committee.
FREESTON: Hundreds of people marched to the conference center to show their opposition to the drilling, based on its effects on the environment and human health. The process for getting the gas is known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking for short. It involves drilling anywhere from 3 to 11,000 feet below the earth’s surface, setting off explosives, then pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals until the pressure fractures the shale rock below, releasing the gas into the well.
JOSH FOX, FILMMAKER: We’re going to leave a message for the next governor. I have his phone number. Do you want to leave him a message?
FREESTON: Firing up the crowd was filmmaker Josh Fox, a Pennsylvanian native who turned down a lucrative deal to lease his mineral rights for drilling. He then went on to make the documentary Gasland, which won the 2010 Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox’s film documents the effects of fracking on families across the United States, where the process is already taking place.
UNIDENTIFIED: Rhonda got really sick with extreme neuropathy and is in a lot of pain [snip] through spinal taps and everything to try to find a cause.
UNIDENTIFIED: It just seems like in the last year and a half I’m never healthy. And I’ve always been healthy.
UNIDENTIFIED: I won’t drink it. When Cabot [Oil & Gas Corp.] and them came in to get the water and they were telling me it was okay to drink, I said, well, here, go ahead and drink it, and they wouldn’t drink it.
UNIDENTIFIED: His hair’s falling out.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah. And he’s losing weight.
UNIDENTIFIED: Hi. How are you? This is Josh Fox, and I’m with citizens from the city of Pittsburgh. We’d like to leave a message for Tom Corbett. We’d like to say, we are going to ban hydraulic fracturing in the city of Pittsburgh and we are going to ban it in Pennsylvania.
FREESTON: On the other side of the state, in Harrisburg, organizers with No Fracking PA set up a lemonade stand offering passersby free lemonade made with tap water from the town of Dimock, where fracking has already begun.
BEN KETCHUM, ORGANIZER, NO FRACKING WAY PA: There was the Bush-Cheney energy task force that gathered the industry together to decide what America’s energy policy was going to be over the next decade or so, and in that policy was written in an exemption now known as the Halliburton loophole, which exempts frack drilling operations from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law. And that’s really given the industry the go-ahead to be able to decimate these areas.
FREESTON: Exempt from these regulations, fracking companies aren’t required to reveal to regulators the chemicals they’re using. But tap water in communities like Dimock have been found to contain chemicals like benzene and toluene, which are believed to cause cancer, brain damage, and other ailments. Haines says that no connection has been proven between drilling and contamination.
HAINES: The fracturing of the wells to create the flow of gas up to the surface, we’ve been doing that as an industry for 60 years. Over 1 million wells in the US have been fracked with no incidents, no proven contamination of drinking water.
FOX: The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection just ordered a $12 million pipeline to replace water for citizens of Dimock whose water had been contaminated by gas drills. They proved that. They have proven that that gas is from Cabot Oil & Gas. And so the industry will continue to come out and say there’s not a single proven case and we didn’t do anything wrong, but this is in contradiction to the science.
RON GULLA, PENNSYLVANIA FARMER OPPOSED TO FRACKING: I see the kids that have rashes, the kids that are having diarrhea, the kids that are throwing up. I’ve seen the cattle that have died. I’ve seen all this. It’s heartbreaking. And they want to deny it. You cannot be exempt from clean air, clean water, safe drinking water, the right to know, and the Superfund act and be a benign process. No one knew that when we signed leases. We signed them in ’02. Everything got passed in ’05. They were preparing themselves.
FOX: Without the exemptions, they would be out of business. They cannot do this without passing along the costs to you, to the taxpayers—your health-care bills, in water bills, in cleanup bills.
FREESTON: In his keynote address to the drilling conference, Karl Rove stressed that Republican electoral victories would assure that regulation won’t get in the way of the industry’s development. Water regulations like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act came into being in the early 1970s during a period of high environmental activism and outrage around the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland. Today in some natural gas communities exempt from this regulation, the water is on fire once again.
UNIDENTIFIED: Whoa! Jesus Christ.
FOX: Don’t drink this water.
FOX: There’s one clip that’s famous, but we have several instances of that going on in the film. It’s something that I heard about all across the nation. People were watching the film and then looking around and saying, oh, we’ve got gas wells in our neighborhood. Lo and behold, they can light their water on fire. And they’re living with those emissions coming out of their sinks.
FREESTON: Fox’s film has been the central education tool for opponents of drilling in Pennsylvania, with public screenings taking place around the state, screenings that drew the attention of Pennsylvania Homeland Security.
FOX: Let me just ask, first of all, is anybody here from Homeland Security?
FREESTON: According to an internal document leaked to the press, the Pennsylvania government was monitoring drilling opponents, antiwar groups, people opposing deportation of migrant workers, and other activist organizations. The document included a report on when and where Gasland was being screened. Outgoing Democratic governor and fracking supporter Ed Rendell said he had been unaware of the program and would not renew the $125,000 intelligence contract. Since then, further documents have shown that Homeland Security was actively recruiting a network of spies and sharing all reports of the list of 731 contacts, including numerous private corporations. Pennsylvania Homeland Security chief James Powers emailed the report to private gas drilling companies themselves, writing, quote, "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies." Powers has since resigned.
FOX: Even though the story has kind of left the media, don’t forget that it’s people like you who came out to see Gasland, who came to protest, who were labeled terrorists, environmental extremists prone to criminal activity.
FREESTON: A key theme of Fox’s film is the abandonment that victims of gas drilling experience when they have no government institution to turn to for help.
UNIDENTIFIED: —weeks, they contacted Mike by phone and said, we’ve tested your water; there’s nothing wrong with your water.
UNIDENTIFIED: With this?
UNIDENTIFIED: With this.
UNIDENTIFIED: No one should ever have to go through what I went through, and call them crying, begging for help, and be told no. And that’s where the system is broken.
FREESTON: Proponents say natural gas is a clean path to energy independence. The most visible voice has been billionaire T. Boone Pickens. The former oil company executive has been gathering powerful allies, from Avatar director James Cameron to CNN founder Ted Turner, the largest private landowner in the United States.
T. BOONE PICKENS, FOUNDER, PICKENSPLAN.COM: You’ve got to go all-American and get off the oil you’re buying from the enemy.
FOX: This is not what T. Boone Pickens says, America’s energy independence; this is more dependence on T. Boone Pickens.
FREESTON: Fox says that it’s a question of priorities.
FOX: We want to spend $700 billion on the transition to natural gas, which over the last 50 years, $350 billion for power plants, $350 billion for pipelines that they’re going to [inaudible] main through everybody’s front yard. Do you want that? Or should we start working on clean, renewable energy right now that will last forever?
FREESTON: Pro-drilling Republicans have the governorship and control of both the federal and Pennsylvania houses. A few Democrats have sponsored a law to bring fracking under existing regulations, but during his post-election press conference, President Obama twice highlighted natural gas drilling as a point of unity with the Republicans.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: So let’s find those areas where we can agree. We’ve got, I think, broad agreement that we’ve got terrific natural gas resources in this country. Are we doing everything we can to develop those?
FREESTON: With little political representation, opponents of drilling in Pennsylvania are facing slim chances of stopping the gas rush through the legislative process.
FOX: Because this is going to be very, very difficult. You need to get ready to do this quite a bit. You need to also probably get ready to do civil disobedience.
FREESTON: The amount of drilling permits and leases in Pennsylvania are exploding as we speak, and it appears that the boom is just around the corner. Join us for part two on The Real News Network as we explore the economics of the Marcellus Shale boom.
End of Transcript
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