November 14, 2011
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.
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 House of Representatives: http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/home/member_information/email_list.cfm?body=H
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.
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.