Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille writing in the 2013 Robinson Township plurality opinion concerning fracking wrote, “Pennsylvania has a notable history of what appears, retrospectively, to have been a shortsighted exploitation of its bounteous environment, affecting its minerals, its water, its air, its flora and fauna and its people…”
More valid words have rarely come from the bench. Pennsylvania has experienced a staggering amount of damage caused by the shortsighted exploitation of our natural resources. Crony capitalism, the fine political art of privatizing profits while socializing the costs, is alive and well in Pennsylvania. Many cases of abuse have impoverished the state’s economy and crippled local communities. Cronyism often even extends to direct public subsidies to those who exploit our “bounteous environment” while diminishing the public estate. The pattern has been repeated throughout our history, and we are now witnessing it again with the frack-gas industry.
The state’s virgin forests were clear-cut with no regard for reforestation or water runoff. Magnificent white pine, hemlock, and mixed stands of ancient forests were virtually gone by the late 1800s. Massive scrub brush fires soon swept the hillsides exposing highly erodible soils. Unprecedented floods soon followed. Logging companies enjoyed the profits and moved west, while downstream communities paid the price with flooded homes and businesses.
Coal was first mined in western Pennsylvania around 1754, and deep mining began on Mount Washington then called Coal Hill in 1760. Room and Pillar “drift” mining soon became the preferred way to dig coal during Pittsburgh's industrial revolution. In 1937, a steam shovel used to dig the Panama Canal was disassembled and moved to Sandy Ridge in Centre County to undertake the first strip mining of coal in the world. Over 10 billion tons of coal have been surface and deep-mined in Pennsylvania since that first Mount Washington mine was opened.
Under the industry’s influence, Pennsylvania legislators held a laissez-faire approach to mining and let miners take their own course without interfering with any safety or environmental protections. Coal barons enjoyed enormous profits while leaving more than $10 billion in unreclaimed mine scars and polluted waterways. By 1970, Pennsylvania had four-thousand- miles of polluted rivers and streams and more than ten-thousand-miles degraded by mine drainage. Mining companies have never been properly bonded to clean up after mining. They developed a corporate stratagem of creating several corporations that in the end were abandoned for bankruptcy. At the same time, profits were bled away by the stockholders who enjoyed the benefits while leaving Pennsylvania taxpayers holding the bag for over ten billion dollars in cleanup costs.
Most Pennsylvanians know the first commercial oil well in the world was drilled by Edwin Drake in 1859 near Titusville, but are surprised to learn that in 1864, John Wilkes Booth, in a get rich scheme, invested nearly all of his remaining theatre earnings for an oil lease near Pithole Creek. The well was producing a small amount of oil when Booth and his greedy partners decided to “shoot” it to increase production. A precursor to hydrofracking, this technique used black powder detonated deep in the well. Instead of producing more oil, the blast permanently closed the well.
A nearly broke Booth left Pennsylvania, and the rest is America’s tragic history. After Booth left, the Pithole oil fields hit big. The exploitation was unrestrained and reckless during Pithole’s short-lived heyday. More oil was floating down the Allegheny River than was refined at the first commercial oil refinery located in Pittsburgh.
In 1899, investigative journalist Henry Lloyd Demarest wrote that “The Standard Oil has done everything with the Pennsylvania legislature except to refine it.” Incorporating Standard in 1878, John D. Rockefeller “had bent and bribed the state government to his will.” Because of Rockefeller’s influence, conventional oil and gas drilling was never properly regulated throughout the boom years.
As a result, there are 475,000 to 700,000 abandoned wells emitting an estimated 50,000 tons of methane per year. Many wells leak brine that impacts surface and groundwater and they create about 5 to 8 percent of Pennsylvania’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
Since it costs about twenty-five thousand dollars to seal each well properly, the cost to Pennsylvania taxpayers to plug all the abandoned wells would be at least eleven billion dollars. At the same time, Rockefeller and other oil barons reaped great private wealth at public expense.
With Pennsylvania’s “notable history” one would think that voters would not stand for unchecked exploitation again as horizontal fracking came to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale formation. On February 14, 2012, then-Governor Tom Corbett signed Pennsylvania Act 13 that forced every municipality to make room for fracking and allowed wells to be drilled within 500 feet of occupied homes and businesses. The law did not address the liquid radioactive wastes that would be produced with brine waters from the hot Marcellus formation, nor did it put oil and gas development under strict oversight or create a funding mechanism for proper enforcement
to carefully track toxic brine disposal.
The law gagged doctors from linking patent health with fracking. Fortunately, the courts overturned that provision on first amendment grounds. The drilling boom is dramatically changing the landscape of northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania by fragmenting forests and inserting industrial-scale frack wells in residential communities. Heavy equipment and scores of trucks damage roads and bridges that are to offset by impact fees on well drillers. However, with inadequate bonding, the deep frack-wells may one day become another taxpayer liability.
Instead of collecting a severance taxes like other states, Pennsylvania provides about $3.2 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies according to a PennFuture Fossil Fuel Subsidy Report for Pennsylvania 2013. With these outrageous giveaways, Pennsylvania taxpayers must pick up the tab for vital state services and education since the gas industry has avoided paying severance taxes that are applied in other oil and gas producing states. Instead of funding schools, vital services, and facilities, we are funding private profits.
We are also currently subsidizing the building of the Royal Dutch Shell’s ethane cracker plant to the tune of $1.6 billion, which may turn out to be about $2.6 million to $6.0 million per permanent employee. The Pennsylvania Senate is close to passing another massive giveaway in HB 1100. This House bill is a part of a package of giveaways to the gas industry cooked up by Speaker Turzai, who recently announced that he is retiring for an undisclosed job widely believed to be in the gas industry.
HB 1100 would give away many billions of dollars in tax credits to incentivize other international corporations to build petrochemical plants like the one in Beaver County. These polluting facilities are dangerous to families living nearby. Cancer rates near similar plants in
Louisiana have caused the region to be called “cancer alley” for a reason. PennFuture and the Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania are warning that petrochemical plants are a public health disaster. “A single plant emits about a half million tons of volatile organic
compounds (VOCs) and other hazardous pollutants every year — a mix of pollution that causes asthma and has been linked to cancer and childhood leukemia, brain, liver, and kidney problems, and even spontaneous abortion and birth defects.” Each new cracker plant is bad for the climate crisis by emitting two million tons of CO2 per year. “Adding one new petrochemical plant is like putting nearly a half-million additional cars on the road. Air pollution increases exponentially for miles around these plants, while big Industry reaps the rewards with no accountability.”
Once again, Pennsylvania taxpayers are being told to pick up the tab for corporate wealth. Lawmakers don’t care that we will breathe more air pollution, that more and more one-way plastic will end up in our oceans and landscapes. History often repeats itself because we don’t read the minutes and discover the last generation’s failures. Let’s put an end to crony capitalism by requiring those who reap the profits to pay the full cost of their actions.
The Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania have made it easy to tell lawmakers, enough is enough.