Marcellus Shale

The controversy surrounding the issue of drilling for Marcellus Shale gas is becoming very intense.  As a candidate for the General Assembly, it is my job to learn all I can about the pros and cons of shale gas extraction and hydraulic fracturing (fracking.)  And, it will be my job, if the voters honor me by electing me as their representative, to protect the health, safety and financial interests of the citizens of the 44th Legislative district.

On the pro side, we have conservative politicians and the employees of the natural gas industry.  After talking to people who work in the industry and doing considerable research, the industry position has become clear.  They want no (or very little) regulation, oversight and liability.  And they want no taxation.

On the con side are people who want moderate to heavy regulation, oversight, liability and taxation.  Some activists want a total moratorium as they have in New York State.  Their logic is that the potential for an environmental disaster is so great that shale gas extraction isn’t worth the risk.

The gas industry flatly states: “There has never been a proven case of ground water contamination caused by fracking.”  Of course, this statement is hotly disputed by critics of the shale gas industry. 

A strong counter argument to the industry position appeared in the winter 2010 issue of Save the Bay magazine (cbf.org), page 30.  Some quotes from the article:  “Methane from the drilling seeped into Norma’s drinking well.”  “My well exploded in the front yard, and it pushed up thousands of pounds of concrete when it blew,” she said.  “Norma said her tap water ran black and reeked of diesel fuel.”  “To drink, she was forced to haul water in buckets from a neighbor’s home.  She asked the drilling company to supply her with water, but they refused … for ten months.” 

My objective is not to be a referee between these two opposing positions; I am just giving some background to the controversy.  However, my job as a State Representative is to make sure nothing like this happens to anybody in the 44th Legislative district.  And, if there is damage, my job will be to make sure there is total compensation and repair to the environment -- with no cost to the taxpayers.  How this objective can be accomplished without an extraction fee, corporate liability and strict government oversight is a mystery to me.

I heard an industry spokesman on the radio state that his company “never contaminated any ground water.” (This is a common assertion.)  But, as an aside, he mentioned that his subcontractors “had some problems.”  The interviewer never asked the industry spokesman to explain how a paid subcontractor in the fracking operation isn’t part of his gas company.  Needless to say, a great sound bite went out over the airwaves.

It is well known that Pennsylvania is the only state that has no gas extraction fee.  Common sense tells us that this is a very bad deal for the taxpayers.  How is it that some politicians in Harrisburg take a position for the gas industry and against the taxpayers?  A possible answer to this question can be found by doing an Internet search for the words “political contributions from Marcellus shale oil and gas companies.”  The article runs to 125 pages, and counting.  (My name isn’t on the list.) 

It has been said that taxing the gas companies will drive them out of the state.  This is a highly dubious argument when you consider that they are taxed in West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Wyoming and New Mexico.  The tax didn’t stop them from doing business in those states.  Will the tax be passed on to the consumers?  Gas produced in Pennsylvania doesn’t necessarily stay in Pennsylvania.  It goes onto the national energy market.  The same is true of oil produced in the United States.  It goes onto the global energy market.  The price is set, arbitrarily, by commodity speculators.  Contrary to popular belief, producing oil and gas in America doesn’t reduce our dependence on foreign suppliers.

This brings up the broader issue of “Drill Baby Drill” or as the bumper sticker says: “Spill Baby Spill.”  America supplied most of the oil to fight World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, and Afghanistan and for our enormous global military footprint.  Whether some or all of those wars could have been avoided, and all that oil saved, is an interesting question.  All that oil is relevant when we realize that most of our easily extracted oil and gas has literally gone up in smoke.  This brings us to Drill Baby Drill.  Do we really want to burn up our last drop of oil and our last cubic inch of natural gas?  Don’t we want a strategic reserve for future generations of Americans? 

I will explore this issue in detail in my upcoming web site article (www.rayuhric.com) titled: “A Sensible Energy policy.”  Our energy policy since World War I has been driven by war and market forces.  More consumption means more profits.  However, we now know that an economy that is largely dependent on fossil fuels is unsustainable in the long term.  The best way to move away from excessive dependence on fossil fuels is by making safe, renewable, non-polluting fuels more economically attractive to consumers. 

In the meantime, should we tax, regulate and have strict oversight of the Marcellus shale gas industry?  Of course we should.  It would be foolish to do otherwise.  Should the shale gas industry be liable for any damage that they cause?  Of course they should.  The BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is an object lesson and a clear warning.  If our political leaders in Harrisburg fail to protect the interests of Pennsylvanians, who will?