One of the most important issues for Pennsylvania and our district is the development of the Marcellus Shale Gas formation. The Marcellus formation has the potential to provide for the nation’s natural gas needs for a decade or more, not to mention provide a tremendous economic boom in our state. (1) From my travels in the district, the public is not yet highly aware of the full impact of what could easily become a curse instead of a blessing. Video link.
The purpose of the below is to share my opinion on what should be done both as a citizen and federal candidate for US Congress. As a disclaimer, while I do hold a chemical engineering degree from Lehigh University, most of my working experience is in the semiconductor industry, not natural gas. (Photos courtesy EPA)
Hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” is done by rupturing shale formations to release gas trapped inside. A water-and-sand based solution is forced into the cracks to allow the gas to be captured after the pressure is removed. Wells are repeatedly “fracked” until the yield of gas is no longer economical.
There are four main environmental dangers and concerns involved in fracking, the first two being of the most concern:
- Proprietary fracking solutions pumped into the well are a chemical cocktail including known carcinogens such as benzene and xylene, and ethylene glycol, the hazardous chemical in anti-freeze, and sometimes even diesel fuel. (2) These chemicals can remain in the ground and migrate into drinking water wells and aquifers, including through the well’s casings, and cause serious health problems to all living organisms. After a “frack,” these hazardous chemicals are isolated with the recovered water and dissolved methane gas in settling ponds, which can also leak or evaporate.
- The natural gas (primarily methane) can migrate through the ground, through well casings, or through the settling process into the water supply. Residents’ drinking water from contaminated wells sometimes can be ignited from the faucet with high levels of foul-smelling sediment. Firewater can also occur naturally, which highlights the importance of baseline studies prior to any drilling activity.
- To pressurize the wells, large quantities of water are necessary, in the realm of several millions of gallons per “frack.” Pumped far below aquifer depth, much of this water will remain trapped in the well. Detailed studies of the impact on local roads from heavy tanker traffic, and the local drinking water supply and reservoirs need to be completed, and of course is of particular concern during droughts.
- Soil and rock tailings removed from the well during drilling can contain hazardous chemicals like arsenic, which have been isolated underground. While this may be less of a concern than the above, caution and testing is necessary to confirm the tailings are not harmful.
Normally, fracking operations would be covered as Class I or Class II injection wells under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA). However, in 2005, my competitor, Congressman Charlie Dent, during the Bush/Cheney administration voted for HR 6 which included Section 322, aka the Halliburton Loophole, which deregulated hydraulic fracturing from environmental regulations and precautions under the SWDA. (Dent accepted campaign donations from Halliburton in 2004.) The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has no authority to even monitor the amount, type or toxicity of the chemicals used in fracking.
Here are the solutions proposed:
- I would co-sponsor, and urge Congressman Dent to immediately co-sponsor, HR 2766, the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act of 2009. This short bill removes the Halliburton Loophole and also specifies that drilling companies must disclose safety-related information about all chemicals used to the public or during a medical emergency. This removes a special privilege granted to special groups.
- However, I view the FRAC Act as only a band-aid that highlights the ineffectiveness of both the EPA and federal Congress versus the lobbyists. Pennsylvania already has “primacy” over the SWDA, meaning that Pennsylvania’s own requirements are equivalent or more stringent than federal guidelines, and the SWDA is enforced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). It is urgent to understand that Pennsylvania, as a sovereign state under the principles of nullification, can override the federal law and pass the FRAC Act and necessary acts or regulations on its own. More localized control will mean more satisfied local residents.
- Non-toxic fracking solutions should be developed, or even a new extraction method should be considered. This can only be done by private industry, not the government.
- Well casings through aquifer zones must be water-tight or even gas-tight, and have multiple redundancies for failure.
- Drilling companies should clearly be 100% liable for any damages caused to individuals and their property, unlike the BP oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico where there was a $75 million liability limit on oil spills created by lobbyists in cahoots with Congress. The state congress should own this action, as US Congress is too slow and also has no constitutional authority over state contract and tort law.
- Localities and landowners could require “surety bonds.” This contract stipulate that the drilling company should set aside funds in the event they are liable for damage caused to individuals. In the event of an infraction, money is paid directly to individuals currently living on the land. Once the company finishes the well and completes the clean-up procedures, the bond money then fully reverts back to the company. This prevents companies from simply claiming bankruptcy instead of paying for damages caused. Surety bonds create a valid “win-win” incentive to safely produce the gas for their management, shareholders, and public alike.
- Drilling company engineers should disclose their FMEAs (failure mode effects analysis) reports to the public that highlights all of the technical and environmental dangers and the installed safeguards to prevent them. These engineering documents not only list all possible dangers, but also categorize them by level of severity.
- Pennsylvania’s state congress should seriously consider a temporary halt to hydraulic fracturing operations in the state and issue a report to the public addressing concerns. Have baseline soil and groundwater reports been completed? Do the local people agree, and are plebiscites (popular votes) necessary?
We must as a society also ask “Cui bono?” or who profits? Local landowners, future job seekers, and of course the drilling companies (otherwise why produce the gas in the first place?) should be the clear winners, NOT a windfall for the government. In the past, government has usually acted like a private cartel to tax and spend on silly pet projects and bureaucracy, and everyone knows Harrisburg and DC would be broke except for the irresponsible money-printing.
It is my personal opinion that if the gas extraction is to be taxed, it should serve a useful purpose for the people. My suggestion is to have such a tax used for abolishing the property tax on primary residences that currently funds the educational system. Furthermore, such as taxation stream should first go directly to the LOCAL coffers of the areas affected by the drilling, then directly to LOCAL school boards on a per capita basis. This gives localities control over their educational budgets, which are way too highly controlled by Washington and Harrisburg currently, in my opinion.
As a federal representative, my job functions are limited by the Constitution, but I feel compelled to make this statement as a candidate for the welfare of the people as I feel this to be a gravely important topic that will impact every Pennsylvanian’s future.
Sadly, protecting the environment is falsely perceived as just a compartmentalized wing of the Democrat party in our failed two-headed, one-party system instead of a valid concern for all of society.
The two ultimate priorities I have within politics are peace and the environment. However, in many cases peace has precedent over the environment; for instance, our armies starting a nuclear war with Pakistan or Iran has precedence over deforestation in California. For without peace, we can not really enjoy our environment. Without a clean environment, everyone’s standard of living and health is impacted, as I learned while living in the smoggy cities of China for 4 years. As a federal servant for the people, I feel my efforts in office will have the most impact by ending the unconstitutional, nation-building wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Yours in liberty,
(1) While official 2009 estimate is 262 trillion cubic feet recoverable (see Dept. of Energy study, page 33/116). Dr. Timothy Constadine, et. al of Penn State University offers a 2009 estimate of 489 trillion cubic feet. More information about the Marcellus Shale gas can be found from this website.
(2) Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “Hydraulic Fracturing Overview.”
A printable version in PDF is available from Scribd here.