On the morning of Wednesday March 9th, I rode my bike about 110 to 120 miles from my house in Pine Grove Mills, Pennsylvania to our commonwealth’s capitol in Harrisburg. I think it’s fair to say that I was on something of a mission, a mission that could initiate a real conversation between our newly elected governor Tom Corbett and his constituents who have a lot of reasons to be concerned about the exponentially growing natural gas drilling industry in Pennsylvania. It is my firm and well-founded belief that this is the issue facing Pennsylvania in particular. This insanity about fossil fuels that undermines our health and wellbeing and a truly good relationship with nature grips our state. My ride and meeting would provide faces for the governor to deal with.
I believe in faces, in people, in our stories, and our conversations about them. And it has only just begun.
For the last couple of years, Mike and I have co-hosted Sustainability Now on Penn State’s student radio station, The Lion 90.7 fm. Mike and I were talking at a party and realized that we had something new in common, the desire to live more sustainably while also trying to understand what sustainability meant to people. The term, as lots of us know, is loose and easy to play with and we thought that we could explore it on some radio time. He already hosted a funk show. Why not take an hour a week, get some cool guests from the large pool of people we could get just in our local environs, and just throw it down?
So that’s what we did: sustainable agriculture and organic agriculture, the ethics of climate change; a green revolution without chemical fertilizers and pesticides; people who do the super-small local work of the Transition Towns to a scientist who was lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change chapter. On almost every show, it’s come to energy and fossil fuel.
In Pennsylvania these days, you can’t think of fossil fuel without thinking of the natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. And so we’ve done some shows on it. We’ve had bloggers on. We’ve had reporters on. I attended a special summit held at Penn State University that alleged to bring all the stakeholders together on the issue but ended up as a corporate meet and greet with wannabe groups getting in the mix. I was one of maybe ten people there critical of Marcellus development. And so over the last couple of years, I’ve been getting more and more acquainted with the issue and getting more upset and distressed.
I called this insanity earlier. An addiction. It’s a kind of insanity that convinces people to sacrifice their and their neighbors’ water. A kind of mania that drives elected officials to sacrifice the common good of the common people in our commonwealth to the bidding of natural gas drilling corporations. It’s the kind of lunacy that leads people to believe that carving up the landscape and polluting everything in sight signals progress. It is a cultural disease.
It is an economic, social, and cultural disease I call Marcellus Personality Disorder or MPD. It is characterized by an unhealthy fixation on private monetary profit, delusions of energy independence, reduced pollution, that individuals are the unit of consideration, ecological sustainability, the acceptance of corporations as people, and negligence to humans, non-humans, watersheds, and ecosystems in the name of progress. The evidence of this is all around us in Pennsylvania, and now our governor, Tom Corbett, may have one of the worst cases of MPD in history. I cannot be sure of it because I haven’t gotten to speak to him yet but it is my strong hunch that the hundreds of thousands of dollars that natural gas corporations have given to him and the unfettered access of natural gas industry people get makes my diagnosis likely.
On my ride to Harrisburg I saw lots of things that are important to us all and that mass MPD will compromise and certainly make difficult to enjoy. For example, just after sunrise I drank from Hickernell Spring in the Bald Eagle State Forest. It rests on the opposite side of Nittany Ridge from the little town of Woodward (famous for its X-Games park and camp). With Tom Corbett’s recent decision to revoke Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) from being able to do preliminary environmental impact assessments on potential drilling operations in state forests and state parks, we have lost what amounted to a moratorium in remaining un-leased state forests. That lubricates the way for gas drillers to lease land like the forests above the Hickernell Spring. For all of the talk of how “clean” natural gas is, it is anything but clean with water.
The new process combines to existing technologies to get at natural gas in the Marcellus Shale: horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The Marcellus Shale is a layer of rock approximately one mile below the Earth’s surface. Drillers bore through thousands of feet of rock. Then, once into the shale play, they turn the drill horizontally so that the well is like an "L" thousands of feet deep and thousands of feet long. Then the well is cased in steel and cemented. Once cased, explosives are set off that put holes in the casing and fracture the shale so that the natural gas can be induced to flow back.
At this point the drillers can begin hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” A mixture of a few million gallons of water mixed with sand and an ultra-toxic cocktail of biocides and lubricants is injected into the well to get the gas out. The injection pressure can reach 15,000 psi. For comparison, the ocean’s pressure at its deepest point in the Mariana Trench is 15,750 psi. This is a seismic event. Of course, some of the “frack” water returns and is placed into a holding pit where it is exposed to open air. The sailinity of this water is five to ten times greater than seawater and comes back not only with the benzene and other carcinogens that went in with it, but it comes out with arsenic, cadmium, radium, uranium, and gross alpha. This is liquid cancer and it is being dumped at Pennsylvania’s wastewater treatment plants.
There have been thousands of ground water violations at wells around Pennsylvania. Cattle have been exposed to frack water. They died or were quarantined. Well pad workers get sick. I have a friend who drives a cab and he has stories now about these guys getting sick from their repeated exposure to materials and working conditions that will kill.
So when I look at Hickernell Spring, I don’t just see a spring anymore. I see people’s health from their water. I see something that is owed to them by civil society for their well-being. I see an elemental support system for the chain of life all around it. But to those MPD, it is either something that might have to be nixed for progress, an “accidental” conduit for poison, or something turned into a source for a profit stream in the production of natural gas. Without DCNR able to effectively safeguard this land, there are fewer options for protecting it.
This was probably the tenth time I have been to Hickernell Spring in the last 10 years. Usually I am there in late spring, during summer, or in the early fall with friendsa and we fill up our bottles for the final 40 miles home to State College. Often there are people there filling up jugs to take home. The water is cold and its sound coming from the pipe in the mountain. The whole experience brings joy to people. It is the simplest thing, but water is joy and life.
During the trip, school kids passed me in their buses. Corbett’s new budget proposes to slash school funding. Whatever the merits or demerits of our schooling system, it seems ludicrous that he would cut down schools to save money but will not tax the natural gas industry on its extraction. Pennsylvania is the only major gas state without a severance tax. Pennsylvania is a commonwealth. Where is the common wealth from natural gas? Surely, as alleged people under the recent Citizens United ruling, they can at least be expected to pay their fair share and help children go to school or help with environmental protection in other areas. It seems not.
To be continued…