Guest column from Berks Gas Truth: Response to Schwank Mayor's support to tax on fracking

The science on fracking is in. Shale gas development is contaminating our water, polluting our air, contributing to climate change at a higher rate than previously understood, causing earthquakes, making us sick, and more. Recent studies have even linked fracking to birth defects in Colorado and right here in Pennsylvania.

None of this comes as news to the countless Pennsylvanians whose lives have been turned upside down by fracking and the industrial build-out that has followed. Right now, there are Pennsylvanians who can’t drink their water, can’t use it to clean, can’t even use it to flush their toilets. Right now, public health physicians are documenting cases of frack rash, respiratory problems, nosebleeds, headaches, stomach problems, neurological disorders, depression, and even certain cancers in Pennsylvanians who live near fracking. Right now, Pennsylvanians whose homes have been impacted by gas operations are finding that they owe much more on their homes than they’re now worth.

To me, these aren’t faceless people I’ve read about or anonymous people I’ve seen on tv. My work on fracking has introduced me to many of these people. Some have become close friends. And so, when I hear my state senator and my mayor declare their support of a severance tax on drilling, I can only shake my head.

It would appear that the environment, our health and our safety have no representation in government. The Republicans have been willing to give it all away; the Democrats want to sell it.

Senator Judy Schwank could give no more of a ringing endorsement of natural gas industrialization than to say that it’s “here to stay” in her remarks at the press conference she held last week to announce her support of a severance tax bill about to be introduced by Senator John Yudichak (D-14). Well, Senator, it’s only here to stay as long as elected officials do nothing to stop it.

Rather than stop it, however, Democratic leaders and candidates at every level of government are lining up behind natural gas, despite the more than 270 peer reviewed studies that point to its harms, many of them irreparable. President Obama has ignored the science in favor of fast tracking liquefied natural gas exports to foreign markets. So much for that cheap domestic energy source you’ve heard so much about. Here in Pennsylvania, however, the discussion has centered on the severance tax now that Democrats are counting on a change in leadership in 2014.

Senator Schwank’s colorful props included a chart that shows how the severance tax would be spent. Education receives the biggest cut, $375 million, while economic development and job creation would get a combined $195 million. By the way, wasn’t the shale gas boom supposed to create jobs? An analysis from the Multi-State Research Collaborative puts the total number of Marcellus Shale jobs created from 2005 – 2012 at 22,441.

The remaining $150 million goes to the environment. Well, at least they’re allotting some funds to clean up the mess drilling has left behind. Oh wait, that’s not the plan. It sounds like the $150 million will be used much as the current impact fee has been used, as shiny, jangling keys to divert people from the environmental devastation occurring throughout the drilling region. “If they’ve got money left over to plant buffers along waterways and restore wetlands in my community, the environment must be in pretty good shape in the gas fields.”

Such diversions are just cheap political stunts, however. The real damage is done by the allocation of severance tax dollars to pay for important programs. Rather than take bold steps to halt drilling in the face of compelling evidence, your Democratic legislators are proposing a plan that will institutionalize it.

Their plan is consistent with those being proposed by all of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates who want to pay for education with a severance tax. It is a proposal that is simultaneously pro-education and anti-child. Children are being adversely affected by shale gas development every day. Children are among the people relying on replacement water. Children are among those whose health problems are being documented. We’re only beginning to learn about the risk of birth defects related to fracking. Children are suffering the insults as well as the injuries gas drilling brings. Last year, 7 and 10 year old children were dragged through a protracted legal case when a drilling company imposed lifetime gag orders on them so that their parents could negotiate a settlement that would allow them to move their children out of the contaminated home that had lost its value. And, of course, children everywhere will inherit the long term impacts, and costs, of gas drilling.

As those more than 270 peer reviewed studies remind us, we didn’t know a fraction of what we should have known before we let the first unconventional well go in more than a decade ago. Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille summed it up beautifully in the landmark Act 13 ruling last December, “By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.”

And the best Democrats can do is tax it?

Karen Feridun, a resident of Kutztown, is founder of Berks Gas Truth, president of the Kutztown Area Democratic Club and holds membership in numerous other groups.