Dan Simpson: Fracking compromises the future of Pennsylvania

Our state officials shouldn’t let oil and gas companies run roughshod over the environment

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I guess that having lived in the Ohio-Pennsylvania-West Virginia tristate area for decades of my life should have hardened me to the apparently popular concept that it is completely acceptable to rape the environment to make a few people rich. But it hasn’t.

The grade school I attended as a child was called Indian Run, based on the red-orange hue of the water in the creek that ran through the neighborhood, thanks to run-off from coal mines.

When I read last week that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection would be releasing a report that oil and gas operations in the state damaged people’s water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007, it did not fail to enrage me, even after all these years.

I have tried, ever since fracking replaced casinos as Pennsylvania’s supposed El Dorado of unearned wealth, to make light of it. My usual laugh line on the subject is to claim that I won’t mind having to shower with bottled water. But the fact is that, even though the oil and gas companies have made a mighty effort in recent years to buy our support for what they are doing, they still are raping the environment to the profit of very few, with the vast mass of us paying the price, now and in the future.

The fact that Gov. Tom Corbett and the Legislature have been entirely complicit, not only in what the companies are doing but also in seeing that they are not adequately taxed for it — even to the level that other gas-fracking states do — makes it worse, although, honestly, we should be paying the taxes we need to meet our needs in education, infrastructure and law and order in any case. These functions should be financed without whatever could be legitimately extracted from the fracking companies. After all, what they are doing to the environment and our future cannot be compensated for by taxes, even high taxes.

Normally I don’t write about fracking, which is off my normal beat of international affairs, national politics and economics. Instead, I’ve squirreled away information and brooded on it, until now, when it has made me angry enough to address the subject in a column.

It has been preposterous from the start to imagine that frackers could do what they do — pump a combination of water, sand and noxious chemicals underground to break up shale formations that then cough up to the surface petroleum and gas-bearing liquid — without fouling the water supply. Whether they do it going down, or coming up, or breaking up the shale down below, they are definitely going to mess up our underground water supply over the long run.

Someone gets paid. A few jobs are created. The roads get torn up. I suppose we shouldn’t care about the formerly scenic views.

America’s natural gas supply is increased substantially. The companies doing the work make big money. The increase in the natural gas supply takes some of the heat off the United States to do something about global warming — if that is a good thing.

The augmented U.S. natural gas supply means we now have enough of the stuff to export. That tempts us to encourage the Western Europeans to replace their imports of natural gas from Russia with natural gas bought from us. This generates some of the pressure for the United States to push the Western Europeans to levy economic sanctions on Russia, including reducing or eliminating European imports of gas from Russia and replacing them with imports from the United States. This is sometimes called “doing well by doing good.”

What is indisputable is that the American population is paying a heavy price for natural gas extraction and is almost certainly destined to pay even more dearly.

The Pennsylvania DEP report includes 209 cases in 77 communities of contaminated water or reduced flow due to fracking from the end of 2007 to May of this year. That contamination, particularly from wastewater brought up from down deep, can include radiation and radioactivity, something none of us would probably like to think about — except for those who’d like to glow after taking showers.

Given the mix of water, sand, chemicals, thickeners and other materials forced into the shale to break it up and free the gas, it is hard to imagine that some of it will not make its way into underground aquifers, our long-term reserves of water.

Add fire to rain. Earlier this year there was an explosion and a fire at a gas well operated by Chevron in Greene County, killing one person. There have been other such incidents.

There are earthquakes. Fracking-related tremors were recorded in Canada as early as 2009 and in Oklahoma in 2011. Closer to home, near Youngstown, tremors earlier this year drew a very concerned reaction from Ohio officials.

Then there is the question of long-term property values. After the shale gas has been pumped out, there will be residual water pollution. There also will be the possibility of subsidence, already an issue in this area because of the coal mines. What will fracking do to property values over the long haul?

Three phenomena are in play at this point regarding fracking.

The first is, of course, greed, trumping any sense of community responsibility.

The second is a lack of understanding of the environmental fire that we are playing with, in terms of potential damage to our water, air and land.

The third is the politicians who make the rules, starting with the governor and legislators, who have been bought off by the gas and oil companies.

I would judge that anyone foolish enough to be taken in by the television and other media advertisements put up by the gas and oil companies deserves to be poisoned or radiated. Basically, we’re letting them wreck the place.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com,412-263-1976).

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