A fracking crash course

Posted 3/3/21

DELAWARE RIVER — The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) just voted to ban fracking in the Delaware River. For some, it’s a monumental victory in the fight against climate change, …

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A fracking crash course


DELAWARE RIVER — The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) just voted to ban fracking in the Delaware River. For some, it’s a monumental victory in the fight against climate change, environmental degradation and water pollution. For others, it’s a foolish move that robs citizens of their private property rights, kills jobs and halts natural gas progress.

But it’s likely there are some readers who don’t necessarily feel one way nor the other about the ban because it’s an issue they haven’t learned much about before. While a single newspaper article cannot encapsulate the entirety of the controversy surrounding fracking, it can give readers an introduction to what it’s all about. 

It’s worth noting that this is not an attempt to promote either side of the argument over the other, nor is it meant to suggest that both sides are equal in weight or legitimacy. The lofty pursuit to figure out “who is right” wages on in the scientific community, government agencies and the court system. As implied by the headline, this piece’s only goal is to provide context about fracking and its significance to the community.

What is fracking?

It’s short for hydraulic fracturing, and it’s a drilling process designed to extract oil or natural gas from shale rock below the earth’s surface. To recover the energy source from these tight, underground rock formations, drillers blast water, chemicals and sand at pressures high enough to fracture the rock. Once the formation has been broken, the trapped oil or gas can flow to the surface.

In the U.S., private landowners who live above these shale formations have the option to lease their land out to natural gas developers to allow drilling to take place. Some landowners, oftentimes farmers, stand to make a pretty penny by allowing drilling on their land —though opponents maintain that in many cases the expected gains prove illusory.

Why a ban is significant

The natural gas industry has been eyeing development in Wayne County, abundant in potential drilling sites, since before 2010. And for more than a decade, anti-fracking activists have been pushing as hard as possible to shut the door on the industry’s face, while pro-fracking advocates have been pulling back, hoping to keep the door open and welcome the drilling companies in. As the two sides struggled for years, the DRBC, the interstate regulatory body overseeing the protection of the river and its resources, has silently stood in drillers’ way with a de facto moratorium. Last week, they decided to make the ban official, finally allowing the door to shut.

The reactions to the ban were just as stark as the two sides’ positions have been for so many years. Many offered their praise, mostly along the lines of this statement from Wes Gillingham, associate director of Catskill Mountainkeeper:

“Today’s vote is a historic victory for all the people who call the Delaware River Basin home and drink the clean water that flows from the Catskills to the Delaware Bay. No longer will they face the threats of water pollution, air pollution and the disease that comes with fracking.”

The ban is hardly as popular among Pennsylvania Republicans. In particular, Sen. Gene Yaw (PA-23), a state senator who has led litigatory efforts to remove the DRBC’s de facto moratorium, called it an “assault” on private property rights.

“The DRBC ban is not just an assault on a highly regulated industry that employs thousands of Pennsylvanians, but it’s another example of neighboring states dictating our energy policy,” Yaw said. “The commission is using New York’s failed policies to institute a ban on development. Pennsylvania has robust rules and regulations in place to protect our environmental resources, which have allowed for the safe development of natural gas in our state. This action serves to undermine economic development and job growth in the region and statewide.”

Health and environmental concerns

For some help sifting through the myriad of research on fracking’s impacts on health and climate, River Reporter turned to Mary Anne Carletta, an environmental scientist retired from Georgetown College and the Delaware Highland Conservancy. She provided some noteworthy findings on the topic through the years:

A 2013 report from Procedia Earth and Science, looking at existing fracking activities in Northeastern PA, noted “evidence for contamination of water resources” related to fracking. The report cites “elevated levels of methane” in drinking water wells near fracking sites. It also found that, in western PA, the disposal of wastewater produced through fracking resulted in “radioactivity in both downstream surface waters and river sediments.”

A 2017 article in Reviews on Environmental Health investigated potential neurodevelopmental and neurological effects associated with fracking and noted that several research barriers made it hard to make conclusions. 

“A number of chemicals associated with [fracking] are not reported to the public. Disclosure of chemicals is critical in understanding the full scope of neurological health effects for infants and children,” the report reads. “Approximately 40 to 50 percent of the chemicals used [in natural gas operations] could affect the brain and nervous system. However, the study was limited because of the lack of transparency about chemical mixtures used in the [fracking] process. The nondisclosure of these chemicals creates barriers to efficient research practices and contributes to the lack of knowledge concerning UOG [unconventional oil and gas] and its potential health effects.”

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released “the most complete” report yet on fracking. In the report, the agency concludes that “fracking has caused water contamination and does pose a risk to drinking water resources. The EPA similarly noted that its report was limited by a lack of transparency from the natural gas industry and mentioned difficulty finding data to compare regions’ water quality before and after fracking began.

Beyond water quality concerns, anti-frackers point to greenhouse gas methane, which has ample opportunity to escape into the atmosphere while natural gas is being extracted, transported, stored and ultimately utilized. Methane stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter timespan than carbon dioxide, however, climate scientists say it has 84 times the global warming impact of CO2 over 20 years.

Pro-fracking arguments

Wayne County shares a border with Susquehanna County, where landowners are free to lease their land and allow drilling. For years, their next-door neighbors in Wayne have wondered why they’re not allowed to also reap the benefits of living atop potentially lucrative shale formations.

In 2007, Tom Shepstone and his family, who together own hundreds of acres of land in Damascus Township, were getting ready to cash in. Then the DRBC de facto moratorium was imposed.

“We did get some [reward] from the leasing... we had hoped to realize more benefits down the road, and we were prevented when the DRBC took really what I consider an illegal stand,” he said. “They’ve stolen people’s property rights, their land rights, their inheritance and they’ve not offered a dime for it.”

Shepstone isn’t alone in this stance. In fact, two lawsuits are currently in progress, challenging the DRBC’s authority to regulate fracking.

A landowner group called the Wayne Land & Mineral Group has been litigating with the DRBC since 2016 over proposed well-pad drilling activities. The private landowner argues that its planned drilling doesn’t fall under the DRBC’s definition of a “project,” and therefore does not fall under the commission’s oversight. Shepstone is informally involved in that lawsuit.

A more recent suit, filed by previously mentioned Sen. Yaw and Wayne County’s own state Sen. Lisa Baker, Damascus Township and the PA Republican Caucus used Shepstone’s argument to challenge the DRBC. Their suit alleges that by prohibiting fracking, the commission has taken residents’ private property rights, protected by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, without proper compensation. The plaintiffs also allege that the DRBC has overstepped its bounds in regulating fracking and usurped authority from the state legislature. The Wayne Commissioners later voted, 2-1, to join that suit as a plaintiff.

While property rights and economic arguments often take center stage in pro-fracking arguments, some challenge the stance that fracking is unsafe and harmful to the environment. A Forbes Magazine writer, for example, cited a recent paper that found that shale gas development has “limited effects on stream biology and geochemistry.”

The writer further argues, “There is no evidence that a frack ban would reduce U.S. emissions. The development of natural gas-fueled vehicles to reduce emissions from gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles would stall. Backsliding to coal as a fuel for power could easily reverse net gains that have been realized in reduced emissions.”

fracking crash course


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