Energy policy and democratic representation in Pennsylvania
When it comes to energy policy, Pennsylvania's government has repeatedly placed profit ahead of public health. Pennsylvanians will not stand this for long.
Tuesday, May 3, 2011 - 14:42
THIRSTY FOR CHANGE: An increasing number of citizens and activists are speaking out against state policies on natural gas drilling across Pennsylvania. (Photo: Marcellus Protest/Flickr)
Just days before the one-year anniversary of the Gulf Oil Spill, Pennsylvania was dealing with a spill of its own. Though hardly of the same magnitude as the BP blowout last April, the recent well failure in northeast Pennsylvania is just one example of the mounting impact of natural gas drilling on a state that has historically exploited its natural resources on a dangerous scale. The current relationship between government and the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania does not bode well for Penn's Woods — unless citizens continue to speak out.
As large quantities of hydraulic fracking fluid spilled into nearby fields and waterways in Bradford County on April 19, the state Department of Environmental Protection was busy defending a new policy that all DEP violations must be approved by the politically appointed DEP Secretary. Amidst much uproar from citizens and former officials, this policy has since been removed.
Chesapeake Energy, operators of the failed well, later received a notice of violation from DEP and temporarily suspended all drilling operations in the region. Unbelievably, though, the company was so unprepared for an emergency that a team from Texas had to be flown in to contain the spill — 13 hours after it occurred. Among the various chemicals in the briny wastewater now polluting Bradford County's waterways: 2-butoxyethanol, a toxin known to damage blood cells and vital organs.
But who needs regulations? The state has left emergency planning up to individual companies, just as it has recently asked — not required — that the industry stop disposing of drilling wastewater at commercial treatment plants not capable of adequately treating for the high concentration of bromides and other dissolved solids.
Pennsylvania remains the only gas-producing state in the country to allow drilling wastewater to be returned to rivers and streams, the primary sources of drinking water for much of the state's population. Even the industry itself has recently concluded that these discharges have contributed to high levels of pollution in the state's major waterways.
Yet in Harrisburg, debate continues over how or even whether to tax the drilling industry. Though Republicans have recently proposed an impact fee that would benefit local communities affected by gas drilling, Gov. Corbett remains steadfastly opposed to anything called a tax. This despite 69 percent of the state's residents who support a severance tax. Gov. Corbett's financial ties to the gas industry have been well-documented and oft-cited in these recent debates, highlighting the extent to which money has influenced the policy discussions.
State government blocking regulation of pollution
Increasingly it has come to appear that it is not the gas drilling industry that is preventing sensible and robust regulation of an inherently dangerous and polluting industrial practice. It is the state government and its regulatory agencies that stand in the way. Protesters have come out in force across the state in recent days, including at a panel meeting of the state's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission. Charging, among other grievances, that the advisory council is disproportionately stacked with industry executives, a growing number of citizens and advocates are feeling the need to speak out against the state's prioritization of profit over public safety.
The idea that economic progress and environmental conservation are mutually exclusive — that one must be necessarily sacrificed in pursuit of the other — is a false choice. This zero-sum logic is based on an outdated paradigm that has no place in a rapidly globalizing economy and a rapidly warming globe. Renewable technology is already in place across the state. What is lacking is the collective will to engage in long-term thinking and invest in technologies that do not steal from future generations and destroy natural ecosystems.
The real point though is not which technology will save us. It is what choices we, as individuals and communities, will make regarding energy use and democratic representation. Pittsburgh has already taken a stand on self-governance and energy policy with a groundbreaking ordinance I previously discussed.
People across Pennsylvania are beginning to take a stand, too. As Ed Rubin, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University aptly pointed out to a crowd of 700 at a recent public energy forum, there is only one form of clean energy: "the kind you don't use and don't need."
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