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Shedding light on a gas patch blackout

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When a friend recently asked me how work was going, I told him about an investigative research project that Earthworks was finishing up. He responded with a quote by writer Kurt Vonnegut: “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do the maintenance.”

That about sums up the central conclusion of our new report, Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement—that as Pennsylvania’s government rushes to expand fracking, it is failing to protect air, water, and health. In other words, the state is more than willing to build the gas and oil industry, but is far less interested in making sure it functions well.

Blackout is the first report to analyze oversight of the gas and oil industry on a site-by-site basis and from the starting point of why it matters, every day for real people. The starting point was a question that gas and oil field residents often ask when their health and environment change after drilling begins: What happened to cause my problems, and what’s being done to solve them?

We wondered if answers could be found by weaving together two earlier threads of our work: the wide gaps in enforcement of oil and gas regulations and the health impacts reported by many gas patch residents in both Pennsylvania and other states. We decided to look for possible connections between events at certain gas well sites or facilities, how operators and state regulators handled the situation, and any impacts that occurred as a result. In the process, we examined information from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), including files on 135 wells and facilities and documents and data related to air emissions, water quality, permitting, operations, incidents, inspections, and violations.

After more than a year of research and analysis, we reached the clear and disturbing conclusion that Pennsylvania is prioritizing development over enforcement; neglects oversight of operators and activities; undermines regulations; and prevents the public from getting information.

Such conclusions have almost become a trend, given the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s recent report on DEP’s water quality program, an analysis of oil and gas spills in Colorado, and a federal watchdog’s review of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s management of oil and gas waste injection wells.

But unlike what happens with many trends over time, growing problems with industry oversight will never be “normal”—at least not for directly affected communities. The in-depth case studies developed as part of Blackout make clear that more development easily means more threats to air, water, and health—as well as more residents with more problems that regulatory agencies like DEP are mandated to help prevent and solve.

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett once famously said that the gas industry would help the state “grow our way out of hard days." But he and other policymakers don’t seem concerned about the hard days (and months and years) brought about by a regulatory approach that fast-tracks drilling despite continual cuts to DEP. As Blackout in the Gas Patch extensively documents, there is a critical need for legitimate, well-funded oversight of the gas and oil industry—and it must be a prerequisite for deciding whether or not to permit fracking, not an afterthought.


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