Thursday, September 30, 2010

Do we Still Have the Freedom to Protest?

They don't bring guns to meetings, they don't throw stones - heck, the most outrageous thing they've done so far is to don costumes and show up at rallies with posters. But for some reason they've been targeted by the Pennsylvania's Intelligence Bulletin as "groups to watch".

Who are these people? Moms, artists, municipal leaders, scientists, landowners ..... people who just want to protect their drinking water from contamination by hydro-fracturing chemicals. And for some reason - who knows why - the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security has labeled people who actively talk about issues affecting their community, and who advocate for their elected officials to take action, as "environmental extremists" - folks who (according to the FBI) might somehow pose an increasing threat to the energy industry. 

The Pennsylvania Intelligence Bulletin is nothing new, but last October the PA Office of Homeland Security outsourced intelligence-gathering activities to the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response (ITRR). 
What POHS wanted: solid information aimed at preventing terrorist attacks on “critical infrastructure” in the state.What POHS received:  information, gleaned from the internet and other open sources, about tea party rallies, gay pride parades and community meetings where citizens discussed their concerns about drilling in the Marcellus shale.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) the intelligence bulletin was distributed to government and law enforcement officials, universities, gas drilling companies and industry lobbyists. What are they worried about? That the anti-drilling folks will share information regarding which companies are involved in drilling in the area? Heck - go to any landowner coalition meeting and you hear the same things! Of course people are talking about who's drilling, where the rigs are and how to prepare for it. 

Every week ITRR listed “natural gas drilling events that may draw unruly crowds” in the PA Intel Bull. Their events included watershed meetings, town commissioner meetings, a music festival, the Cabot community picnic, the PA Forestry Association meeting and, of course, the Binghamton EPA meeting originally scheduled for August 12. In most of the bulletins they lump citizens into two groups: “environmental activists and militants” or “landowners and industry representatives”. Sorry all you environmentally-concerned landowners - in ITRR's eyes there is no in-between.

In one bulletin ITRR warns that the group intending to “force pressure tactics” on the EPA is a “loose organization of New York landowners who are in favor of natural gas drilling…” They back this up with selected quotes from an e-mail that was widely circulated by landowner's groups: “EPA is coming to hear from you!” it said; show up and “be seen in solid support of gas development”.

Their bigger concern, of course, was the fear of a large anti-drilling activist turn-out at the EPA meeting. ITRR based their warning for this huge turn-out on activist alerts circulating on the list-serves of Shaleshock (Ithaca), ROUSE (Brooktondale) and NYRAD (NY Residents Against Drilling, in Binghamton).

“Shaleshock is basically a list-serve and an educational resource,” says Lisa Wright. She describes herself as a concerned citizen, finding it hard to get her mind around the "extremist" label ITRR has slapped on the group. "It's pathetic that PA Homeland Security diverted resources to monitoring mostly middle-aged women in comfortable shoes who were planning to attend a hearing to exercise their First Amendment rights,”she says.

Bill Podulka, a founding father of ROUSE is equally stymied by ITRR’s attention. “It is absolutely ludicrous that Homeland Security was monitoring these groups and their listserves,” Podulka says. “Exercising our rights of free speech and freedom of peaceful assembly should not draw the attention of anti-terrorist officials.  I thought we had out-grown this kind of McCarthy-era thinking.”

In the days since news of the intelligence bulletins leaked to the press, PA Governor Edward Rendell has apologized for the unwarranted snooping into citizen gatherings and canceled the contract with ITRR. The PA Senate Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee subpoenaed administrators in Office of Homeland Security to testify, and PA law enforcement has basically dismissed the ITRR information as worthless.

Meanwhile, ACLU-PA has filed a Right to Know request asking for all records related to the anti-terrorism bulletins that included information about activists involved in lawful protests. They are also calling for a full investigation by an independent party.

You can read the PA Intelligence Bulletins at

If you or your group believes you have been targeted by these bulletins, the ACLU suggests that you file a Right to Know request. They have templates on their website and they promise to provide assistance to anyone who encounters difficulties during the process. For help, go to or call 215-592-1513.

Monday, September 27, 2010

DEC considers Leasing State Forest Lands for Gas Drilling

Earlier this month the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released their draft "Strategic Plan for State Forest Management." 

According to DEC, the state holds 786,000 acres of forested land in trust for the public. "This plan," said Commissioner Pete Grannis, "will provide invaluable guidance for years to come on key issues such as harvesting timber from state forests, strategic planting to ensure diversity of species, protecting soils and protecting forest health against invasive species."

The plan will allow for gas exploration and drilling in the forests, projecting up to one well per 80 acres. However, for wells that are spaced closer that 320 acres apart, there would be additional restrictions and environmental studies before drilling could occur.The plan also calls for public comment on any wells before they are permitted, but relies on the regulations of the 1992 GEIS to guide gas drilling. 

You may read the  draft plan here. You may also request a CD by sending an e-mail to, or mail a request to Strategic Plan for State Forest Management, NYS DEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4255.

Comments are due by 4:45 pm on Friday, October 29
  • e-mail your comments to: 
  • post them to: Strategic Plan for State Forest Management, NYS DEC, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-4255.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

West Virginia Well Still Burning

Last Sunday, the 19th, a Chesapeake well drilled about 9 miles from the town of Cameron, West Virginia ignited. Now, a week later, it's still burning. According to a Chesapeake spokesman, the the gas that is burning is from a pre-existing well.  

Earlier this week the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued Chesapeake a Notice of Violation for "failing to prevent the release of natural gas and the potential pollution of the waters of the state". The DEP also determined that the well fire "presents an imminent danger to persons and an imminent danger that a fresh water source or supply will be contaminated or lost". So the agency issued a Cease Order halting all operations at the site.

This isn't the first accident in the area - in July a TransEnergy drill pad had a gas leak, and the month before it was an explosion at a gas rig near Moundsville. Though there's been a lot of drilling in the areal these three accidents coming so close together, has the folks in West Virginia wondering just how safe the influx of Marcellus drilling is. 

"Considering the fact that Marcellus Shale natural gas producers have moved into West Virginia's Northern Panhandle on such a large scale .... concern is mounting about just what long-term impact the area may face if these accidents aren't stopped," Casey Junkins writes in the The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

So far, drillers in West Virginia have been cited for close to 470 violations in the past 20 months. Pennsylvania drillers may have their Mountain State brethren beat (1435 violations in the last 30 months) but for an industry that claims it wants to be in the area for the next 50 years, these numbers are too high.

Especially when, as Junkin's article notes, Chesapeake plans to drill in the vicinity of parks and businesses sometime soon.One industry spokesman pointed out that the problems have "nothing to do with geology" - apparently it's just a "matter of having the proper safeguards in place". 

No kidding! The problem - if residents can't trust the industry to make sure those safeguards are ..... safe, then they aren't going to want drilling in their back yards. Or their parks. Or anywhere else, for that matter. 

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Risk Perception determines Attitudes towards Drilling

Yard signs are proliferating around here. Drive Route 96/96B from Owego to Ithaca and you can't avoid seeing the signs: "Friends of Natural Gas" in one yard, "No Frack" signs in the next. Ask Penn state sociologist Kathy Brasier why there's so much polarization over drilling, and she'll tell you that it's not age, income or length of residence that makes a landowner pro- or anti-drilling. It's how he perceives the risks associated with drilling.

Brasier recently presented preliminary data from the “Community Satisfaction Survey”, collating answers from 1920 people in 21 counties in Pennsylvania and eight in NY. Nearly 80 percent of the respondents lived in their communities for 20 years or longer, rating their quality of life as “very good”. Over 70 percent listed drinking water, neighborliness and the natural environment as the reasons for living where they do. Ten percent had already signed gas leases and just under half of those said they were satisfied with the terms of their leases.

While they haven't seen an influx of Marcellus drilling in their areas, close to 50 percent believe that the environment will get worse and at least one third are worried about road impacts, increasing crime and the availability of affordable housing.

People’s opinions may be informed by their experiences with gas drilling, Brasier said.  “Those supporting Marcellus development tend to have wells nearby. They are the ones more likely to expect jobs and job training opportunities to increase.” 

Those who support gas development also perceive risks differently from those opposed to Marcellus drilling. Risk perception has a lot to do with the level of fear, uncertainty and familiarity with the industry, Brasier pointed out.It is also based on the potential for catastrophic events, how preventable problems are, and the distribution of risk.

“For example, are those who benefit economically also taking the risk?” Brasier asked. Nearly half of the survey responses indicated concern that only a few people in the community will benefit from drilling.

What has become clear, as Brasier has analyzed the data, is that risk perception reveals two distinct ways that people think about drilling. “These polarized groups have fundamentally different orientations towards the natural environment, sources of trusted information, and expectations for impacts,” she said.

Those who perceive lower risks associated with Marcellus wells demonstrate a higher trust in the gas industry and basically view humans as dominating nature. In contrast, people who perceive a higher risk with Marcellus drilling tend to place their trust in environmental groups and view humans as being an integral part of the ecosystem as a whole. Each group sees the risks and rewards differently.

Interestingly, NY respondents expressed a higher level of concern and negativity towards drilling than their PA counterparts. Brasier believes this is a result of  the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) decision to not issue generic Marcellus drilling permits until their study of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing is complete. This “effective moratorium” created an opening for debate that allowed for a high level of mobilization and organization on both sides.

This polarization makes it particularly difficult for communities trying to navigate the conflict, Brasier noted. She listed some strategies for communities dealing with polarized interest groups. “First, recognize the context in which concerns are raised,” Brasier said. “Acknowledge what is at risk for each group.” Equally important, Brasier urges community leasers to assemble the best information from multiple sources.

“Building trust will require transparency, discussion and a commitment to agreed-upon goals,” Brasier said. She suggests that communities struggling with these debates take the time to create a process that allows people to identify the basic issues they have in common. “Not their positions on an issue,” Brasier says, “but their interests in having good jobs for their children or protecting some feature of their community that they all value.” This will take time, she cautions. The process must give people the opportunity to learn, to discuss, and to create relationships with others throughout the process. It has to provide a safe environment for people to listen to one another and, maybe, move their positions without losing face.

Friday, September 17, 2010

PA sees Drought Warning; DEP asks citizens and industry to voluntarily reduce consumption

Filling up from the Susquehanna in Sheshequin Township, Bradford County PA
Yesterday, September 16 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a drought warning for 24 counties and a drought watch for the remaining 43 counties. The reason is a continuation of what DEP officials refer to as a "precipitation deficit". It hasn't rained for a long, long time. And when it has, the amount of rainfall has been lower than average. 

"The hot, dry conditions over the summer months have led to steadily-declining ground and surface water levels, particularly in the southwest and east-central portions of the state," DEP Secretary John Hanger said in a press release. So DEP has issued the drought watches and warnings across the state to alert water suppliers, industry and the public of the need to "begin conserving water."

What does that mean for the residents? For Stephanie Hallowich it means figuring out how to reduce her family's consumption by 10 to 15 percent. "We are advised not to flush our toilets as frequently, shorten our showers and conserve water," she says. Hickory, which is about 25 miles south of Pittsburgh, is in one of the dryer counties. 

It's also home to gas drilling, and Hallowich sees the water trucks lining up daily to dump water in the impoundments (large ponds) for use in drilling and hydraulic fracturing. "There are public water lines connecting to huge hoses that carry water to impoundments throughout the area," Hallowich says. "Our creek beds are dry where they've been withdrawing water all summer."

The 24 counties under drought warning are: Allegheny, Beaver, Bedford, Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Fayette, Franklin, Fulton, Greene, Huntingdon, Lackawanna, Lawrence, Lehigh, Luzerne, Mercer, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Schuylkill, Somerset, and Washington.  According to DEP, precipitation is over 5 inches below normal in these counties, and the situation extends south into West Virginia as well. Households, businesses and industries have been asked to voluntarily reduce their water consumption 10 - 15 percent.

The remaining 43 counties are under a "drought watch"  which is the first level - and least severe - of the state's three drought classifications. It calls for a voluntary 5 percent reduction in non-essential water use, and puts large water consumers on notice to begin planning for the possibility of reduced water supplies.

DEP is sending letters to all water suppliers statewide, notifying them of the need to monitor their supplies and update their drought contingency plans as necessary. But they aren't turning off the faucet for companies drilling in Marcellus shale. At least not yet.

"When DEP gives those companies permission for water withdrawal, it's based on the stream flow in the works case scenario," explained DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun. "So far the DEP has not needed to ask those companies to stop withdrawing water." That's because, Rathbun says, the gas drillers take less than one percent of the water consumed each day. "Public water utilities are the biggest user, followed by agriculture, power generation, recreation .... natural gas comes in seventh on the list."

Rathbun stressed that at this point reducing water consumption is voluntary. Yes, water levels are low. "But we're a long way from a water emergency," he said. Small comfort to homeowners like Hallowich who have watch the water levels in their local streams decline as water tankers fill up before heading to the drill sites.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Field Trip to the EPA Public Forum in Binghamton, NY

First the EPA was going to hold the last public forum on their Hydraulic Fracturing study at Binghamton University. That was scheduled for August 12. But then BU officials started hearing rumors that the "tree-huggers" were going to hold a huge rally - and maybe 8,000 people would show up!
By George, the "gassers" wanted a piece of the action so they organized their own rally and by August 10th both the EPA and BU were calling it quits. The public forum was tentatively moved to the OnCenter in Syracuse and then scrapped altogether until a new date could be determined.

After some consideration they rescheduled the public meetings, holding them on Monday and Wednesday this week, with two 4-hour sessions each day. The venue: the old Forum Theater in downtown Binghamton.

About 400 people signed up to submit oral comments - that's 100 people per tightly-scheduled meeting. The first forum began at noon on Monday, but by 9:30 sign-toting people from all sides of the issue began gathering on Washington Street in front of the Theater. Those who were concerned that hydro-fracking would endanger their water and air were gently herded to the south end of the street by uniformed officers.

The hundred-or-so pro-drilling advocates, organized by the joint landowner’s coalition, gathered behind barricades at the north end of Washington Street. Sporting green caps and holding “Friends of Natural Gas” signs, they chanted “Pass the Gas” and “Safe Drilling Now”. 

In between the street was empty, blocked off from traffic – a no-man’s land presided over by a handful of bored police officers and the occasional journalist looking for a sound byte.

 The south end of the block tended to be livelier: a couple people erected a drilling rig, complete with a roulette wheel (take your chance! gas or water!); folks brought a diversity of signs, many hand-made; there was a "Frackin-stein" and this guy dressed in a hazmat suit.
Jawbones Prickens was handing out fake $100 bills fast as he could, which had a lot of worried parents grabbing markers to make their own signboards.

Oren Lyons, a traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, stressed the importance of clean water for NY and for the world. 

And Walter Hang, holding a map of NY with all the precious waterways colored in blue, rallied people to send the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) back to the drawing board.

The rally also drew people from the northern tier of Pennsylvania. Julie and Craig Sautner brought up a gallon of tap water from their Dimock, PA home. “We used to have clear, good water,” Craig said. That was before Cabot drilled. Holding up the jug of rust-colored water he shouted, “I can’t say that this will happen to you. But is it worth the risk?”

Inside the Forum Judith Enck, EPA regional administrator for region 2, insisted the new study on hydraulic fracturing will be “transparent and peer-reviewed”. Dr. Robert Puls, technical lead for the Hydraulic Fracturing Study, asked people to provide specific comments about the fate of fracking chemicals, where EPA should conduct case studies, groundwater concerns and where the "information gaps" are. 

After a brief introduction, the public was invited to submit oral comments to the panel. Speakers were limited to two minutes, and a timer was projected on a screen. The meeting remained civil but contentious. Pro-drilling advocates, for the most part, tended to hammer on the same talking points: the lack of contamination caused by a narrowly defined process of fracking; the relative safety of the chemicals; and the economic need for the money gas drilling will bring to state and local economies and landowners. “Can Pennsylvania and NY citizens afford to be shut out of economic opportunities?” asked one landowner.

Environmentalists tended to focus on the broader picture. “It is wrong and dangerous to grant an industry wholesale exemption from our country’s most important public health laws,” said Congressman Maurice Hinchey, citing the Safe Drinking Water Act. 

Tompkins County legislator Martha Robertson urged EPA to look at the overall carbon emissions resulting from the industrialized drilling required to exploit Marcellus and other shales. “High volume hydro-fracking may actually increase our carbon footprint,” she said, noting this will accelerate climate change. The daily emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from drilling activities in the Barnett shale are roughly equal to the emissions from a 1,500 MW coal-fired power plant, Robertson said. "That’s too much, especially given the disastrous effects of climate change on our water resources."


Sunday, September 12, 2010

EPA asks Industry to Reveal Fracking Chemicals

On Sept. 9, just four days before EPA's final set of public hearings on hydraulic fracturing in Binghamton, NY, the Agency issued voluntary information requests to nine natural gas service companies regarding the process. The data, says EPA, is integral to the scientific study now underway - the study which Congress in 2009 directed to determine whether hydraulic fracturing has an "impact on drinking water and the public health of Americans living in the vicinity of hydraulic fracturing wells".

EPA sent letters to BJ Services, Complete Production Services, Halliburton, Key Energy Services, Patterson-UTI, RPC, Inc., Schlumberger, Superior Well Services, and Weatherford asking for each company to detail the the chemical composition of fluids used in the hydraulic fracturing process. The letters also requests data on the impacts of the chemicals on human health and the environment, standard operating procedures at their hydraulic fracturing sites and the locations of sites where fracturing has been conducted. 

"Natural gas is an important part of our nation’s energy future, and it’s critical that the extraction of this valuable natural resource does not come at the expense of safe water and healthy communities," EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson told the press. "By sharing information about the chemicals and methods they are using, these companies will help us make a thorough and efficient review of hydraulic fracturing and determine the best path forward."

While EPA requested that the information be provided on a voluntary basis, they gave the companies 30 days to provide the data - and gave them a deadline of seven days to inform the agency of whether they will provide all of the information sought. The data being sought by the agency is similar to information that has already been provided separately to Congress by the industry, notes the EPA. Therefore, the Agency expects the nine companies to cooperate with these voluntary requests. If not, a spokesman says, the EPA is "prepared to use its authorities to require the information needed to carry out its study".

You can read the EPA's letter to the gas companies here.