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March/April 2011
Vol. 36, No. 2

Environment: Small wins to curb mining's damage

A city ordinance in Pittsburgh and a moratorium bill passed by the New York state assembly are two local efforts to protect citizens from the negative consequences of gas drilling in their communities. These efforts represent a first step in challenging the mining industry's minimally regulated practice of hydraulic fracturing (also known as "hydrofracking," or simply "fracking.")

States from New York to Tennessee lie atop the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which geologists estimate contains enough shale gas to power the United States for two decades. Fracking was developed in the 1990s to get at the shale gas, which is caught in millions of tiny pores in the rocky mountainous terrain. Millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals are blasted deep underground to create fissures that open the pores and free gas to rise to the surface. A number of technology and industry exemptions from provisions in core environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation Recovery Act make fracking economically viable.

As North America wakes up to the reality that carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil and coal will not drive this economy forever, natural gas is embraced by many energy analysts and government officials as a possible "bridge fuel" that could assist in transitioning the country to renewable energy sources. Former Vice President Dick Cheney was instrumental in attaching an amendment to the 2005 energy bill that stripped the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to regulate fracking through the Safe Drinking Water Act. This essentially gave natural gas extraction companies a free hand to drill how and where they see fit, and to use and dispose of toxic fracking fluids without disclosure or safety requirements.

Communities with active drills are reporting negative consequences including fatalities from exploding wells, 30-mile stretches of streams without any living organisms, exploding tap water, sick children and adults, and destroyed farmland. Last year when 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into fields and creeks in Dimock, PA, 15 families suffering from contamination related health problems filed suit against Cabot Oil and Gas, the primary leaseholder in the area.

Since federal laws include so many exemptions, oversight and regulation of the drilling is left entirely to states, which simply do not have enough inspectors to cover all the wells. For example, in 2009 24 inspectors oversaw more than 64,000 wells in Ohio.

Pittsburgh's city ordinance to ban fracking is inspired by the fact that the city sits atop the Marcellus Shale and that extractive corporations have already purchased leases to drill there, including under area parks and cemeteries. By passing the ordinance the city is taking a stand to elevate the rights of people, the community, and nature over corporate "rights." By adopting the ordinance, Pittsburgh became the first city in the U.S. to recognize legally binding rights of nature. Drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), the ordinance includes provisions that eliminate corporate "personhood" rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill; it also suspends corporations' ability to wield the Commerce and Contracts Clauses of the U.S. Constitution to override community decision-making. Representatives from drilling companies have indicated that they may challenge the ban in court.

Pittsburgh expects little help from Pennsylvania to defend its stand since the state continues to issue permits to corporations in spite of growing community opposition.

Meanwhile, in New York, the state assembly voted 94 to 44 in favor of the "Sweeney" Moratorium bill (A11443-B), identical to the bill passed by the State Senate. Signed by then-Gov. David Paterson, the law makes New York the first state in the U.S. to impose a state-wide moratorium on new permits for fracking gas drilling until May 15, 2011.

Public concern over fracking's impact on the state's water resources is growing. More than 52,000 New Yorkers had signed a petition urging the assembly to pass the bill. On a national level any progress on the issue of fracking is complicated by Congressional attempts to defund the EPA, limiting its ability to regulate water and air pollution through the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

Faith in action:

Read the National Council of Churches' natural gas fact sheet.

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