January 23, 2012

To Win Ohio and Pennsylvania, Obama Must Oppose Fracking

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This morning, I was sipping coffee and watching Sunday morning talk shows with my parents. We talked about the presidential election when my dad muted the commercial breaks that consistently included fossil fuel industry commercials.

My mom put it simply, "I made phone calls, put up posters, and worked at the [Obama] campaign office in 2008. I won't do that again if he supports fracking. He needs to protect our clean water, public health, and well-being."

Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", is used to extract the gas from a rock layer called the Marcellus Shale and in at least 32 states in the country. The biggest corporations in the world have their sites on shale gas plays and the gas trapped in them, including Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, Chevron, and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC).

The vast grassroots organizing efforts to stop fracking, despite being largely unfunded by traditional Big Green environmental groups that have promoted natural gas as a bridge fuel to a clean energy future for years, have carried their weight in the pitched battle against drilling and are going to play a major part in 2012 kingmaking in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The fracking process requires up to 15 acre well sites, one to nine million gallons of water per well per frack, pipeline right of ways, smoggy compressor stations, processing facilities, thousands of truck trips, and fracking fluid cocktails made of up to 596 different chemicals. Thousands of violations related to environmental health and safety have been documented by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the head of which, Secretary Michael Krancer, is admiittedly pro-drilling. An analysis from 2010 by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association puts these violations in perspective:

DEP records show a total of 1614 violations of state Oil and Gas Laws due to gas drilling or other earth disturbance activities related to natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale in this 2.5-year period.  The Association identified 1056 violations as having or likely to have an impact on the environment.  

There is no such thing as "safe" fracking. See the movie Gasland to learn more.

Stephen Cleghorn, an organic farmer from Jefferson County, PA, has been speaking out for a moratorium on drilling in Pennsylvania, most notably after his wife Lucinda Hart-Gonzalez' lost her battle with cancer in November with a powerful speech at the DRBC protest the day of the canceled vote. From his recent TruthOut piece:

 

Her joy was in sustaining our farm against the threat of fracking. After Lucinda's ashes become a part of this piece of the good earth, it becomes sacred ground to me, and the company that owns the so-called "rights" to the gas in the shale below our farm is advised to keep their hell away from this place.

This morning, I asked Stephen for a comment on Obama's campaign this year. He responded, "Lucinda and I hosted campaign workers in our farm home for three months. I am very disappointed that he cannot see the need to stop fracking, but the Republicans will be even worse. I will vote for Obama, to be sure, but I am not as likely to have campaign workers here this year."

The grassroots organizing the Obama campaign relied on for the 2008 campaign is waning as rural Pennsylvanians like my mom and Mr. Cleghorn lose enthusiasm.

This situation poses a problem for the Obama for America campaign, especially regarding the latest news reported by the usually-Obama-friendly liberal blog, Daily Kos:

Situation Normal, All Fracked Up: Obama embraces fracking

 

Last week, the Obama administration gave what may be its first formal statement favoring hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of natural gas in a report, Investing in America (pdf).

[From the Obama administration:]

"Since the mid‐2000s, however, the discovery of new natural gas reserves, such as the Marcellus Shale, and the development of hydraulic fracturing techniques to extract natural gas from these reserves has led to rapidly growing domestic production and relatively low domestic prices for households and downstream industrial users. Appropriate care must to be taken to ensure that America's natural resources are extracted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner with the safeguards in place to protect public health and safety. Provided these precautions are taken, the potential benefits to the U.S. economy are substantial.

Of the major fossil fuels, natural gas is the cleanest and least carbon‐intensive for electric power generation. By keeping domestic energy costs relatively low, this resource also supports energy intensive manufacturing in the United States.  In fact, companies like Dow Chemical and Westlake Chemical have announced intentions to make major investments in new facilities over the next several years. In addition, firms that provide equipment for shale gas production have announced major investments in the U.S., including Vallourec’s $650 million plant for steel pipes in Ohio.  

An abundant local supply will translate into relatively low costs for the industries that use natural gas as an input.  Expansion in these industries, including industrial chemicals and fertilizers, will boost investment and exports in the coming years, generating new jobs. In the longer run, the scale of America's natural gas endowment appears to be sufficiently large that exports of natural gas to other major markets could be economically viable."

President Obama has a very important question to answer about fracking before Pennsylvanians like my mom, and Ohioans turn away from working his campaign in 2012. Namely, the old coal miners' union slogan, "Which side are you on?"

The future isn't very bright for us. President Obama has had an opportunity to halt the practice of hydraulic fracturing every single day of his presidency. Instead he has pursued the following pro-fracking policies that must be ceased immediately:

- President Obama initiated the Global Shale Gas Initiative under his State Department “in order to help countries seeking to utilize their unconventional natural gas resources to identify and develop them safely and economically.” Through this program, Obama has met with leaders of at least India, Poland, and China to speak in favor of fracking, making his administration the largest lobbying firm for shale gas drilling in the world.

- President Obama has ordered his Army Corps of Engineers representative on the Susquehanna River Basin Commission to repeatedly authorize water withdrawals from the basin by natural gas drillers, enabling the expansion of drilling in rural Pennsylvania that has caused thousands of environmental violations.

- President Obama has remained silent on the Delaware River Basin Commission’s ongoing effort to authorize fracking in the Delaware River Basin, drinking water for 15.6 million people, including my high school.

- President Obama’s Department of Interior office in State College, PA, under authorization of the Endangered Species Act, regularly permits gas drilling operations and infrastructure without sending government surveyors to identify endangered species habitat at the sites, instead relying on the paid contractors of the gas industry and the outdated, incomplete, Pennsylvania National Heritage Program.

- President Obama’s Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has authorized the construction of numerous natural gas pipelines, upgrades, and compressor stations that enable further development of gas drilling by moving the produced gas to market.

In Ohio, “Seventy-two percent of voters polled said there should be a halt in hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking, in Ohio until more was known about the impact of the process, Quinnipiac found,” according to a recent Reuters report.

Ohio has been watching fracking expand at an exponential pace, with 156 permits issued for drilling in the Utica shale that underlies portions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia. Ohio issued 80 of those permits during the last three months of the year, including 32 in November.

Ohio has also been the recipient of fracking waste sludge, hosting controversial Class III injection wells where drillers come from out of state to dump. The big problem? They are suspected of causing earthquakes. Activists young and old have been rallying against and even blocking access to the injection wells. 

Here in Dingmans Ferry, PA, in Pike County where gas leases have been signed within a few hundred feet of the Delaware River and in Promised Land State Park, with thousands more leases upriver in Wayne County, natural gas drilling is on our doorstep.

The river is the drinking water supply for 15.6 million people from New York to Delaware.

Industrial-scale drilling hasn't started here yet because the Delaware River Basin Commission has yet to pass a set of regulations that would permit the use of fracking. A handful of exploratory Marcellus wells in the river basin have already yielded one well casing failure in Wayne County at the Davidson well in Scott Township. Well casings are meant to protect aquifers that provide well water to rural homes from contamination.

The industry states that they are seeking to drill 10,000 to 20,000 Marcellus wells in the Delaware River Basin.

The DRBC is a federal commission made up of President Obama governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware and requires a majority vote to allow drilling.

In November, thousands of brave people planned to protest the final vote on the regulations in Trenton, NJ, causing a last minute dissent of Governor Markell of Delaware. Governor Markell's decision to vote "no" on the regulations was based on his concern that New York has not issued their state's regulations for the process. President Obama remains silent.

In a worse case scenario if New York issues their regulations this spring, the DRBC could vote to approve drilling on the Delaware River as shale gas development scales up quicking in New York as well. That is, of course, if President Obama allows that to happen.

Long story short, the Obama campaign can expect further protests, like the one we held in Scranton when he dropped in for a visit in December.

The anti-drilling protesters were the most numerous, as well as the most visible and the most vocal.

Dingmans Ferry resident Alex Lotorto, an organizer with the Energy Justice Network, said he expects the president to protect rural Pennsylvanians from the harms caused by drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking - a point that will be driven home at every campaign stop he makes in the state next year.

"He needs to keep his promises about clean air and clean water," Mr. Lotorto said.

I expect that anti-fracking activists will visit his campaign offices, campaign stops, and campaign websites to encourage his supporters join in the call, "No Fracking Way!"

It is President Obama’s decision alone whether or not he will lose the key states of Pennsylvania and Ohio by remaining supportive of the gas industry that is pillaging us here. Please inform him of this, starting with his Facebook page. It would do him good to pay attention, act on fracking, and fix what's already broken.

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