By Jimmy

As you’ve noticed, the bloggins have been slim lately. It’s not for lack of ideas, but a lack of time, a complaint I hear often from students. But the natural gas industry keeps drillin’ along. Right now, a helicopter clatters above these hills for seismic testing, trucks haul water to the fresh water storage pit on Bullock Road, a drill rig guides a bit down to the gas near Shell Appalachia’s offices, roughnecks frack two pads within a ten-minute bike ride from our house. A breathtaking amount of work is required to get the gas, not to mention all the resources used, resources that go beyond trucks and rigs to shaping policy and dealing with communities who question or oppose the industry. There’s so much going on, I can’t keep up with it all. But that’s the beauty of the industry’s rush to drill—they can dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to keeping their industry skids greased above ground, so they can keep punching holes in the ground. In this post, I want to mention three issues that are worthy of attention right now.

Hauling brine.

First, there’s Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection’s Special Conditions General Permit WMGR064 (click on the pdf), a permit designed to grant municipalities and others permission to use natural gas well brines for “roadway pre-wetting . . ., anti-icing . . ., and de-icing purposes.” I read the proposed permit and it raised a lot of questions for me, including: What studies show that using natural gas brine will not harm our surface or groundwater? Does this mean that Marcellus Shale brine is excluded from use? How will the amount of brine used be tracked? (The permit contains parameters for chemicals and heavy metals in the brine, some of which appear quite high.) Regarding the tracking of brine use, number 15 on the permit can be read to mean that brine is analyzed after it has been spread on the roads. Is that the case? Who will be responsible for any environmental clean-up, should the need arise? (The Mansfield Gazette published my letter containing these questions on Nov. 9. Since my letter was published, I’ve received an email that states the original permit prohibited use of Marcellus brine. Why doesn’t this one?) In an attempt to understand this process, I spoke with professors and municipal employees who know more about gas drilling and water quality than I do, and they thought the use of road brines for dealing with snowy and icy roads is a bad idea. While the chemical make-up of the brine may seem insignificant in the amounts listed, the chemicals and heavy metals it contains accumulate rapidly. This is a similar to the “experiment” of pesticide use that Rachel Carson criticized in Silent Spring. We simply don’t know enough about the long range effects of using brine on our roads (not to mention how much it will snow) to take a chance like this. That’s what I’m going to tell DEP by November 16, the day DEP stops accepting public comments. Contact Scott E. Walters, Chief, General Permits/Beneficial Use Section, Division of Municipal and Residual Waste, Bureau of Waste Management, P. O. Box 8472, Harrisburg, PA 17105-8472, 717-787-7381. (Does anyone have a working email for Mr. Walters?) TDD users may contact the Department through the Pennsylvania Relay service, (800) 654-5984.

Second, Governor Corbett has proposed in HB 1950 that the gas industry pays an impact fee to help compensate for their impacts. Imposing a fee on the industry is a step in the right direction, though I need to look more closely at the numbers before I get excited. More importantly, Corbett’s proposed legislation takes away the zoning rights of local governments. So, does that mean that gas drillers will pay an impact tax and be able to drill wherever they want? That doesn’t sound like a good trade-off to me. I confess I haven’t read much about this legislation yet, though it sounds like the advantage goes to the gas industry. Make your thoughts known so0n–they could vote this week:

PA State Senate

PA House of Representatives

While we’re on the subject of impact fees, I would like to point to a report issued by Citizens for Tax Justice. In it, researchers analyzed the amount of taxes paid by a variety of corporations from 2008 to 2010. While the federal corporate tax rate is 35%, many profitable industries paid few or no taxes during the period studied. Oil, Gas, and Pipeline industries paid an average of 15.7% in federal taxes. The report also states that Chesapeake and Halliburton paid no federal taxes at least one of those years, though they profited in the millions of dollars. Granted, these are not state taxes, but the report suggests that these corporations can surely afford to chip in a bit more to Tioga and the surrounding counties. They get plenty of tax breaks. How about a break for the people who live here?

Third, CNBC and a Dallas-Ft. Worth CBS-affiliate reported that executives at an oil industry conference discussed the efficacy of using the expertise of soldiers trained in military psy ops to help the gas industry and communities coexist and the applicability of the US Army’s Counterinsurgency manual to give industry professionals strategies for dealing with locals. I can understand the impulse on the part of the gas industry here—much successful counterinsurgency depends upon establishing relationships with locals, hearing them out, and communicating. But there are many problems with this approach. One, people who question or oppose the gas industry are not “insurgents,” as the executives’ framing implies. They are citizens with valid concerns. It’s as simple (and as complex) as that. Second, counterinsurgency techniques were designed for public governments (and paid for with our tax money), not private corporations. The Counterinsurgency manual (yes, I’ve read parts of it) defines insurgency as “an organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” The people here aren’t trying to change things, the industry is. And I find it more than a little ironic that Corbett’s impact fee includes language abolishing the zoning rights of local governments. Corporations are not governments, and they shouldn’t be treated as such.

"Counterinsurgency . . . is the graduate level of war." From Chapter 1.

My biggest issues with the “insurgency” framing are these: the manual frames the issue in terms of war and it assumes that the counterinsurgency is in the “right” (at least in what I’ve read). In the first paragraph of Chapter 1, the word “war” or a pronoun referring to it appears eight times. Eight times in twelve lines. That’s bothersome to me. No one was causing any problems before the industry came in. The executives are talking about citizens who are voicing their concerns and complaints, citizens who are now linked, purposely or not, with terrorists. As I continued reading Chapter 1, I noticed one assumption throughout is that the counterinsurgency is always right. Maybe in later chapters, the manual addresses the possibility that the counterinsurgency may be mistaken, but I saw no room for self-reflection, which reminded me of Aubrey McClendon’s occupational psychosis. I also don’t see much room for democracy as we define it working well if the industry is allowed to write the ordinances or buy off some of the people who do. People living over the gas have a say, and it’s not always about money. And don’t start in about royalties. Many people I know haven’t seen any.

Phew. I need to work full time just to stay on top of these issues to the degree I would like. That’s a problem many of us outside the industry share. I have more questions and thoughts about these issues and others, but student essays beg for responses, committee work needs to be done, the lawn needs mowing, a book chapter needs to be written, and my son needs help building his birdhouse. As Lilace said to me earlier, it’s hard to create when we are so busy defending. And it’s not easy to understand an issue when more questions are raised than answers given. The situation reminds me of getting lost on my bike—I may be tired, the weather threatening, and the water bottles empty, but I know I need to keep turning the pedals. Eventually, I’ll figure out where I am. Likewise, I have to keep asking questions, and reading, thinking, and writing about the industry.


Defining Our Common Wealth

October 20, 2011

By Lilace

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. See, I’ve fallen in love again and let other things slide. You remember how it is.

Taking a break at Hills Creek Lake

Me, I seem to fall hardest in autumn. I met Jimmy in September 1997, when I was 29 and knew in the first couple weeks it was forever. Last fall when my real estate agent brought me to the Whitney House for the first time, I was just as smitten. Jimmy and I bought it and were moved in by Halloween.

And this autumn, I have fallen more deeply in love with Pennsylvania. It’s not just that where we live now I have a sweeping view of hay fields and a small old cemetery against the distant hills (out front), and meadows of goldenrod and flaming sumac with winding paths mowed throughout (in back).  There’s the chickens too, of course. I could watch the chickens chase each other and the puppy in circles all day. No, it’s because I started getting out of my own yard and exploring what is just around the corner.

Hills Creek State Park is a few miles away. I was accustomed to thinking of the 407 acres in terms of my children—it has a great playground and in summer the lake and sandy beach are free. Since there’s no edge to drop off, I preferred it to the town pool while the kids were too young to swim. But recently I’ve discovered what a great playground it is for me. In a fit of determination, I registered for the annual Step Outdoors Tryathlon held at Hills Creek, thereby forcing myself to start training and get off my, er, front porch.

This Tryathlon (they spell it “try” to encourage first-timers like me) combined a 3 mile run, 2 mile paddle, and 9 mile bike ride on dirt roads. So I started riding the bike route among forests and farms, and fast walking the lakeside trail. The trail is mostly in mixed conifer and deciduous woods, with moist forest floors, gnarled roots, and seasonal creeks. Kingfishers rattled above and the prehistoric squawk of a heron made me peer through the branches to see it fly gracefully over the glassy water. I would be transported into an ancient place with a timeless sense of peace. I confess it amazed me how much more restorative it felt than walking my nice country road.

It did have a panoramic view of a drill rig on neighboring property, so close it seemed to rise out of the lake spillway. But it’s down now. And for a while a huge long swath adjacent to the park was cut open, stopping traffic and reminding me as I watched them lay the pipeline, of tendonitis surgery on my wrist. But that area is now covered, reseeded, and except for the gap in the trees where it runs through woods is not ugly or traffic-stopping anymore. Things change. It’s the lesson of the seasons, especially autumn with the leaves flaunting their transformations.

My first triathlon went well; even though I walked the “run” part, I took third place in the solo women’s category. People came from out of state for the event, and the camaraderie of folks enjoying the outdoors was as invigorating as the physical activity. Jimmy, who has a long history of competing in similar events, had been riding his bike(s) a lot too, getting away from the computer as much as possible, and training for his big cyclocross race last weekend in Carlisle, PA. It’s an autumn tradition for him.

This year as Jimmy went away for his big race, the kids and I participated in an event closer to home. Wanting to get them in on the fun, and hoping they were old enough to enjoy it, I signed us up for the Ives Run Trail Challenge. It’s a 4 mile course in nearby Ives Run Recreation Area surrounded by State Game Lands. Our seven-year-old son partnered up with an adult friend who wanted to introduce him to trail running, and I walked with our four-year-old daughter.

They both were the youngest participants, had a great time, and showed themselves what they could do. Our family turned a new leaf, one Jimmy and I have anticipated since having kids—they can now walk far enough and long enough for us to explore outdoors in the ways we love, leaving parking lots and trail heads far behind. This is why we chose to live in a place like Tioga County, where the sylvan aspects of Pennsylvania still predominate. The woods, lakes, streams, and accompanying wildlife are treasures worth more to us than any signing bonus or royalty check.

Early 1900's PA State Park beneficiaries

Intimately entwined with our state’s history of extractive industry (logging, tanneries, coal mining), is its history of state parks and recreation lands. Joseph T. Rothrock, the first Commissioner of Forestry in the early 1900’s, was a medical doctor as well as forester and developed camps in forest reserves for tuberculosis victims and others with respiratory illnesses. Later in the 1950’s, the new head of the Department of Forests and Waters (departments always morph and change names) set a goal of having every Pennsylvania resident no more than 25 miles from a state park. Though Maurice Goddard fell short of his goal, Pennsylvania now has one of the largest state park systems in the nation. And today the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Tioga County Partnership for Community Health sponsor events in these public lands such as triathlons, trail runs, and other outings to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians and visitors.

Recently, Governor Corbett has talked of privatizing the state parks, taking a core part of our common wealth—one residents have supported with bond referendums and avidly utilized for over a century—and stripping it of protections meant to guard the long-term benefits of mental and physical health for state residents, as well as the value to wildlife. I don’t share some people’s faith in a free market; I feel sure that putting state parks in the for-profit sector will quickly degrade the resource, as economic values trump all others.

Corbett also quickly repealed former Gov. Rendell’s policy to limit gas drilling impact in state parks. Corbett says the policy was redundant; supporters say it allowed the state to manage (not ban) the drilling impact on tourism and recreation. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlines the situation:

Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, 61 of them in the two-thirds of the state lying above the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old formation that might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

The mineral rights — including Marcellus gas deposits — under 85 percent of that park acreage are privately owned. Courts have ruled that the so-called “mineral estate” rights are superior to surface rights in Pennsylvania, and that the owners of underground mineral rights must be given reasonable access to develop those holdings, even when they lie under parks or other publicly owned land.

So even without privatizing state parks, Pennsylvanians must struggle with what the Marcellus Shale rush will mean to our public lands heritage. We must all be flexible as well as vigilant during the shifting season of this Marcellus Shale autumn. And when I get anxious about the changes, I head for the woods and wildlands that so many people have worked to conserve and protect. Ironically, in these stressful early years of the gas boom, we need the peace of deep forests and the negative ions produced by clear running streams more than ever as places to recharge.