Memo to John Hanger and all candidates for governor of PA: Why a Moratorium on Shale Gas Drilling Makes Sense…NOW
Call this, first of all, a “Memo to John Hanger,” but also call it, more broadly, “Memo to All Democratic Candidates for Governor” seeking primary votes from registered Democrats in May 2014.
SUBJECT: WE NEED A COMPREHENSIVE MORATORIUM ON ALL NEW PERMITS FOR SHALE GAS EXTRACTION, NOW - that is, when a new governor takes office in January 2015. We can forget about such a moratorium while Corbett is here and – may it never be so – if he is re-elected. (Our current “NOW” already seems like an eternity of shale gas hell.)
This memo is first of all addressed to John Hanger because I have written on this site (and taken severe criticism from some of my good friends) about what I consider his merits as the next governor of Pennsylvania. My support for Hanger is based on a broad set of progressive policies he has articulated; it is not limited to the energy and environmental issues which are my top priority. Yet even on my top priority, I think Hanger has the best experience and knowledge – coupled with the deepest passion – to move our state toward a sustainable and environmentally responsible energy matrix. Frankly, he has some making up to do, which I think he wants to do, but that would mean very little if he did not know how to get the job done.
Truth be told, however, Hanger does not yet have the best policy position on shale gas. I am not talking about in comparison to the other candidates. I mean he still needs to move off his position of rejecting a general moratorium. He is dug in on resisting a moratorium for new permits. It is not that he is a “gasser” as some on my friends like to call him. It really comes down to the fact that, near as I can tell, he does not know how to be intellectually dishonest, which is why I consider him an awkward politician but a good man. It is my understanding he just cannot say he supports a moratorium on new permits when he sees some beneficial uses of natural gas, at least for the immediate future of the next decade or more.
I have a piece of unsolicited advice for John Hanger. Intellectual rigor and integrity are good things, but listening to the wisdom of the people is even better. Being willing to change based on what you hear is the best we can hope for from a leader.
Yes, Hanger supports a moratorium in state forests and parks. Good, but not good enough. Yes, he supports keeping the moratorium in the Delaware River Basin because he thinks DRBC rules for drilling are inadequate as of now. Good, but not good enough. Yes, he supports a “moratorium” on bad actors, drillers whose practices show they should lose the right to operate in this state. Good, but not good enough, especially since that is just as it must be. It is true that Corbett never met a driller he did not like, but it is a rhetorical stretch to call shutting down a bad actor any sort of “moratorium.” In my opinion, the defensiveness of using the term “moratorium” in that way hurts Hanger’s chances any time he does so.
Here is how I see it. There will never be a better time for imposing at least a two-year moratorium on all new shale gas permits than January 2015 when a new governor steps into office. For that moratorium to have any intellectual and policy integrity, it should be open to the conclusion that shale gas drilling might be banned in Pennsylvania altogether. Time and study will tell on that, but a moratorium without the possibility of a ban truly would be intellectually dishonest.
Allow me to explain.
Reason #1: There are at least two years of work to be done in overseeing, regulating and cleaning up the current system that is already in place and working so badly. It could take two years to deal with a backlog of permits for wells not yet drilled. It is impossible to deal with problems of the old while so much new is coming into the system.
- If no new permits were issued for 2015 and 2016, DEP will have its hands full in dealing with the problems of existing and planned inventory. As of January 2014 DEP shows 7,456 unconventional wells drilled, with another 7,974 already having been permitted. Under the law these permitted wells cannot be stopped. At the current rate of 55 new permits weekly, there will be another 2,900+ to be permitted in the year Corbett has remaining in his term.
- Corbett will likely run up that score after he is defeated. This means the next governor will inherit a system of more than 18,000 unconventional wells alone (not including tens of thousands of conventional wells) to be regulated and inspected.
- DEP shows a rate of 89 unconventional facilities inspected each week, meaning it will take more than 83 weeks to be on-site for just one day annually at existing facilities. Even if the inspectors are doubled, there are still almost 8,000 new wells that are likely to be drilled and fracked in 2014-2015.
- New inspections to deal with fugitive methane migration, the number one reason natural gas contributes to global warming, will require even more effort to identify leaks and to make certain each is stopped.
- A woefully inadequate system for protecting air quality, reducing to near zero the number of water contamination incidents, and dealing with toxic waste will require herculean effort to reform and improve. The current system of environmental grievances must be given priority over issuing new permits for drilling.
Reason #2: Demand for Marcellus Shale methane is down and likely will stay down for 2015-2016 unless there is major new activity in exporting the gas, a development (i.e., exporting gas) any governor should resist as much as possible under current federal law.
- Rig counts are down and there is a glut of gas depressing price, which means that drillers and investors have slowed down activity.
- It can be argued that the existing system can deliver all the gas that is needed to convert American power plants to cleaner-burning natural gas over the 2015-2016 timeframe, gaining some advantage on climate change as compared to burning coal. There is no rush to get more gas flowing from the shale.
Reason #3: The EPA study of hydraulic fracturing and its potential to cause irreparable harm to groundwater aquifers will be coming out in 2014 or 2015. Why not at least wait until that study appears and is thoroughly vetted through peer review and a public comment process?
- There is a huge unanswered question about whether current technology for extracting shale gas is now causing (or inevitably will lead to) permanent contamination of groundwater aquifers with shale gas and/or drilling chemicals and radioactive materials from shale. Migration of these toxic substances may be happening now but not show up for decades. It is our responsibility to insure that future generations have clean water and a habitable climate.
- We need solid, scientific answers, based on a unique study of Pennsylvania geology, to answer the question of whether it is safe to proceed at all.
- According to DEP, well casings in Pennsylvania are failing at a rate of 6% or more as new wells are drilled, and industry studies predict that 2%-60% of all well casings might fail within 30-50 years. Whatever the numbers, it makes no sense to continue a type of drilling that is so risky and will put an estimated 150,000 unconventional well bores into one-half the land mass of Pennsylvania that would have to hold up in perpetuity to protect water sources.
Reason #4: John Hanger has proposed (and let’s assume other Democrat candidates agree) that a comprehensive public health study must be completed in the northeast/north central and southwest areas of the state where drilling is most intense.
- Such studies will not be completed in 2014, perhaps not even in 2015, so it just makes good sense to ramp up funding for public health data collection and compile better information on health consequences before committing the state to new permits.
Reason #5: There is a fundamental issue of fairness in how some parts of the state are now protected from unconventional drilling while others are exempted.
- The DRBC has a moratorium in place now. As part of passing Act 13, the state legislature made a side deal for counties atop the South Newark Basin, the district in which Democratic candidate Allyson Schwartz lives.
- If it is good that some parts of the state should hold off on drilling until a comprehensive environmental impact study is completed, then all the state and its entire people deserve that same consideration. Otherwise some of us in the unprotected areas are being subjected to a mass experiment using an industrial process that is not yet “steady state” by any means and fosters environmental injustice.
Reason #6: Peoples’ good faith and trust in government can be gained back, at least in part, by such a moratorium.
- Starting just nine years ago in 2005, the shale gas industry invaded Pennsylvania under the banner “The Shale Army has arrived and resistance is futile.” The industry had been acting for years before that to corrupt the political system with money to pave its way. More and more of its citizens are now saying “Enough, we need a break!”
- Support for a moratorium on new permits should come from John Hanger and Katie McGinty more than anyone in the Democratic field, both of whom were directing the Department of Environmental Protection when the Democratic governor they served gave the green light for the shale gas industry to come into the state. It was not their fault that the industry arrived or that it quickly overwhelmed the system they were charged to administer. Still, many people see them as part of the “old” oppression that should not be given a chance as governor to correct the deficiencies of the past over which they had only partial control. Their support for a moratorium on all new permits would serve as a good faith action that they are serious about allowing this drilling only if it can be proven environmentally safe for the long haul.
- Even so, now is NOW, and neither Hanger nor McGinty has called for a general moratorium on new permits for unconventional wells. Doing so would not only help their campaigns, but would vindicate the difficult work done by citizens to monitor this industry and provide some check on its power – a role of government which it has failed to perform.
- There is something to be said for a candidate changing his or her mind when confronted with new information. Although, perhaps, it is inevitable that any candidate who now comes out for a moratorium on new permits will be accused by a cynical press (and some anti-fracking advocates) as “flip-flopping” or “pandering,” that goes with the territory of running for public office and making decisions on the best available facts at hand in a given time.
To repeat, this is a memo directed largely at John Hanger, but it is applicable to all Democratic Party candidates, and for that matter all parties’ candidates for governor. How come we cannot have a two-year moratorium on new shale gas permits as of January 2015? Why not when there are so many good reasons to take that step?
This post will go to all of the Democrat candidates, at the least, and ask that they reply in this space. Who will have the courage to answer the question?