Josh Fox traded his Yankees cap for a Pirates cap while in the frack-free Pittsburgh.

Clearly, President Obama has not seen Gasland Part II.  If he had, he would not have laid out a climate plan so reliant on fracked gas. 

Josh Fox went to the frack-free fortress of Pittsburgh last week for the final screening of Gasland II before it runs on HBO July 8. With cheers and standing ovations, the audience of about 1,700 welcomed back the filmmaker who had brought to the big screen homeowners who could perform pyrotechnic tricks with tap water.  

Outside Pittsburgh, the gas industry occupies much of the rest of the state, so before the film many groups offered helpful information, such as a two-hour training called “Learn to track shale gas operations in YOUR community”  and websites such as FracTracker to get information and post stories about contamination.    

Fox, who grew up in Milanville, Pa., toured 23 cities in Pennsylvania, California, Illinois and New York, showing Gasland II to enthusiastic audiences. In Williamsport, Pa., about 1,000 people came to see the Gasland sequel, Fox said, while a nearby showing of the pro-industry FrackNation, drew 18. 

He said he used to feel isolated, depressed, lonely and anxious. “I’m not lonely anymore,” he said to more cheers. The “inspiring and uplifting” movement that has taken on the fracking industry has “reinvented democracy,” he said. Although the work is extremely difficult, he said, the only way forward is to continue to organize, protest and take back our communities.  

Fox accused the last three Pennsylvania governors of “carrying the toxic water of the natural gas industry.”  After rolling out the red carpet to industry, the state has been conducting an ongoing “environment impact study on the people of Pennsylvania,” two-thirds of whom now want a moratorium until risks are evaluated.    

Gasland II starts off with many shots of Obama boasting about our 100-year supply of natural gas. That is one long bridge. Then Fox shifts to his flyover on July 4, 2010, of the Gulf of Mexico, 75 days into BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Press flights were restricted, but when Fox called the FAA, someone from BP answered (huh?) and cleared his flight. Long streaks of oil are visible on the vast surface. BP ended up using a chemical banned in Europe to make the oil sink and, presto change-o, vanish from sight— at least for humans, at least temporarily. He interviews concerned families along the coast. “This is where we eat, sleep, live,” one mother says. 

And so, the fossil fuels industry has created yet another mess. 

The film then picks up where the first Gasland left off.  Fox can now view a drilling rig from the home in the woods that his parents built. He interviews families near fracked  wells in Wyoming, Texas and Pennsylvania. Some residents complain of water smelling like turpentine.  A Texas family can spray fire from the garden hose. The children of then-Mayor Calvin Tillman of Dish have nosebleeds and rashes. Water tests reveal benzene and other neurotoxins. A family pays $1,000 a month for replacement water for their Texas mansion because their well water has benzene, toluene, boron and other fracking-related chemicals. A woman in Wise County, Texas, says she began stuttering and stumbling after the drilling started.  She says her body tissue contains chemicals linked to fracking. The families show Fox page after page of water test results. They are torn between moving to protect their health or staying in hopes that the companies will be forced to connect their homes to public water or compensate them in some way.  

At town meetings filmed in Gasland II, Dimock and Pavillion residents get the results of studies confirming the water is contaminated with chemicals linked to fracking. Residents cheer as the report is read, because for a brief moment they think they’ve won. But they haven’t. There will be no precedent-setting connection to public water. Although the official line is that the water is safe to drink, residents say EPA officials are telling them quietly that they should not use the water. Abandoned by regulators, they end up settling lawsuits, moving and being barred from speaking about their cases. If they don’t settle, they will be stuck with the lawyers’ fees. They truly can’t win. (The morning after the Pittsburgh screening, an article on page 2 of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said the EPA had turned over the investigation of the Pavillion water to state officials.) 

Meanwhile, the industry and state regulators continue the line that fracking has never contaminated the water. (Last month, though, the Scranton-Times Tribune, using information obtained through a state appeals court order, reported that state environmental regulators determined that oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, businesses and churches. )  

Gasland II goes beyond these families, though. We see the industry employing military psyops tactics, referring to fracking opponents as insurgents or the counterinsurgency. Fox covers the revolving door for public officials and the gas industry executives. For example, Tom Ridge, former governor of Pennsylvania and George W. Bush’s homeland security director, became an industry lobbyist. The gas industry has also ripped a page from the tobacco industry’s playbook, hiring the same slick PR firm and producing children’s coloring books featuring a “Friendly Fracosaurus.” 

Fox interviews Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor of engineering, about cement casing failures: “It’s not a question of if but when [methane] will migrate” into aquifers. Gasland II examines global shale deposits and the U.S. industry’s export plans. He talks to economist Deborah Rogers: “Wouldn’t it be great for industry if they get us to be much more dependent on natural gas…and then prices start rising?”  In Australia, a taciturn farmer shows Fox the water bubbling up in his fields. Of course, he can light the water on fire. 

Fox also links fracking to climate change and ecosystem tipping points, using clips from Hurricane Irene’s havoc in New York and an interview with Cornell scientist Robert Howarth about methane leaks.  Fracking is the last gasp of the fossil fuels industry, Fox says. But this film also documents the rising anti-fracking movement. 

Matia Vanderbilt and Eric Robison, both of in Garrett County, went to the screening. Vanderbilt said the connection between the tobacco and gas industry PR campaigns “should be a huge wake up call to people. Many of us remember some of the old cigarette ads claiming how good cigarettes were for you. In 1966, the Flintstones, a children’s cartoon, was used to promote Winston cigarettes, like the ‘friendly Fracosaurus’ is being used to persuade children that fracking will be good for them and their future…..It would be a crime to wait 40-plus years for our society to realize the human rights side of fracking before taking action to protect our human rights to clean air and water. Just like there is no safe cigarette, there is no safe fracking. These types of marketing PR campaigns have become tools of power that manipulate societies into believing in false promises with the hope financial gain and energy independence, while promoting denial about the negative impacts of fracking.” 

Robison, the president of, said: “On the way home from Pittsburg we were traveling south on Interstate 79 between Washington and Waynesburg when in the distance we spotted a drilling rig in operation on a hilltop beside the interstate. The area was lit up like a sports event at night, and as we passed the site we were struck by the very strong smell of chemicals (we were a couple thousand feet from the site) . . . My thoughts drifted to . . . Welcome to Gasland!”

A few days after the screening, the EPA delayed yet again, until 2016, its study on the effects of fracking—even as Obama was no doubt finalizing his climate speech that presses for rampant fracking. (Fox’s reaction to the climate speech is here.)  And then Duke University scientists published a study showing high rates of methane, propane and ethane in wells up to kilometer from fracking sites. covered that here.


Myersville Citizens for a Rural Community continues its battle with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and Dominion Transmission Inc. over a planned 16,000-horsepower compressor station for fracked natural gas on the edge of town.  Myersville’s future is our future. If we build an economy on fracked natural gas, we will all face some combination of drilling rigs, compressor stations, pipelines, fractured forests, air pollution and toxic chemicals wandering around in our exploded bedrock looking for a way into our drinking water.    

The town has to file its appeal by July 15. Chesapeake Climate Action Network will match up to $1,000 for the legal defense fund.

Donations can be sent to: MCRC, PO Box 158, Myersville, MD 21773

— elisabeth hoffman


Smokestack Lightning performed “We Don’t Frack in Pittsburgh Town.”


About 1700 people filled Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall for the screening.




President Obama says we have to do something about this heat.
//screen grab from

President Obama stood in the heat today and talked for nearly an hour about climate change. He outlined his plans to cut carbon pollution, to prepare for the chaos already in the pipeline and to lead the world in “a coordinated assault on a changing climate.”    

There was so much to love in this speech.  For starters, it’s still exhilarating to now have a president who talks about science. In this speech, Obama made the connection between the burning of fossil fuels, a warming planet and droughts, deluges, heat waves and fires. He talked about how costs are mounting for these catastrophes already. He said “carbon pollution” 30 times, a rebuke to Republicans who believe it is their patriotic duty to stick up for carbon dioxide. He was outraged that power plants get to pollute for free. He said that we, our children and our children’s children will live with the consequences of what we do today.  He opened the door, just possibly, to saying no to the Keystone XL pipeline, even though he was not expected to even mention it. He said “divest,” sending all atwitter on Twitter. Heck, I even loved how Obama rolled up his sleeves and mopped not just his brow but his entire face. It’s hot out there.

On the other hand: He called natural gas a transition fuel and a clean energy source. Not good. 

So, here are my bests and worsts from Obama’s climate change speech at Georgetown University. (The White House website has many climate-related charts, too.)  

Best quotes: 

Carbon emissions = carbon pollution:

 … the levels of carbon pollution in our atmosphere have increased dramatically.

Extreme weather from climate change is pricey:

And we know that the costs of these events can be measured in lost lives and lost livelihoods, lost homes, lost businesses, hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency services and disaster relief. In fact, those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it  they’re busy dealing with it. 

Americans across the country are already paying the price of inaction in insurance premiums, state and local taxes, and the costs of rebuilding and disaster relief. 

The need to act now:

So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act. I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.  

They get to pollute for free:

Today, about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants. But here’s the thing: Right now, there are no federal limits to the amount of carbon pollution that those plants can pump into our air. None. Zero. We limit the amount of toxic chemicals like mercury and sulfur and arsenic in our air or our water, but power plants can still dump unlimited amounts of carbon pollution into the air for free. So today, for the sake of our children, and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants, and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants. 

A little sarcasm and the false choice of jobs vs. children’s health:

Now, what you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end American free enterprise as we know it.  . . . Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.

Drilling is not the answer:

What is true is that we can’t just drill our way out of the energy and climate challenge that we face. That’s not possible. 

On Keystone:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant. 

Zero-carbon jobs:

I know some Republicans in Washington dismiss these jobs, but those who do need to call home — because 75 percent of all wind energy in this country is generated in Republican districts.  

End fossil fuel tax breaks:

[M]y budget once again calls for Congress to end the tax breaks for big oil companies and invest in the clean-energy companies that will fuel our future. 

Energy efficiency standards:

So I know these standards don’t sound all that sexy, but think of it this way: That’s the equivalent of planting 7.6 billion trees and letting them grow for 10 years — all while doing the dishes. It is a great deal, and we need to be doing it. 

The hard truth:

The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It’s going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize. 

Preparing for transition:  

And we’ll partner with communities seeking help to prepare for droughts and floods, reduce the risk of wildfires, protect the dunes and wetlands that pull double duty as green space and as natural storm barriers. And we’ll also open our climate data and NASA climate imagery to the public, to make sure that cities and states assess risk under different climate scenarios, so that we don’t waste money building structures that don’t withstand the next storm. 

Sharing the planet:

And we have to all shoulder the responsibility for keeping the planet habitable, or we’re going to suffer the consequences — together. 

Overseas coal plants:

Today, I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas — unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity. And I urge other countries to join this effort. 

Setting an example:

The actions I’ve announced today should send a strong signal to the world that America intends to take bold action to reduce carbon pollution. We will continue to lead by the power of our example, because that’s what the United States of America has always done.

Just say no to well-connected donors:

And those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors, and more concerned with the judgment of posterity. Because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions. 

Just say no to flat earthers:

 I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people, and as a society, and as a country on where we go from here. 

Did we do all we could?

And someday, our children, and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?

Invest. Divest. Be heard:

So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future. 

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

Crises averted:

Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did. 

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed. 

And the worst quotes: 

Equating (basically) natural gas and renewables:

Today, we use more clean energy — more renewables and natural gas — which is supporting hundreds of thousands of good jobs. 

Creating false choices, when I thought we weren’t going to do that:

We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions. . . .The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It’s lowering many families’ heat and power bills.

The so-called bridge fuel, now called a transition fuel:

And it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.

Spreading the fracking disaster:

So to help more countries transitioning to cleaner sources of energy and to help them do it faster, we’re going to partner with our private sector to apply private-sector technological know-how in countries that transition to natural gas.


— elisabeth hoffman


garrett county

Winter in unfracked Garrett County.

I’m going out on a limb here: A scenic byway with a drill pad for fracking natural gas 300 feet away will no longer be scenic. A scenic or wild river 300 feet from that drill pad will no longer be scenic or provide a sense of wilderness.

And yet, those are some of the setbacks for drilling rigs listed in the state’s draft of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for fracking in Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland.

The 15-member Marcellus Shale Initiative Advisory Commission got its last chance last week to look over the document being prepared by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of the Environment (MDE).  Before releasing the BMPs to the public, the state departments are making final adjustments based on that discussion. Individual commissioners can also provide comments for a planned appendix. The BMPs will in turn be incorporated into regulations for drilling permits if Maryland opens the door to fracking.

Commissioner and Delegate Heather Mizeur, for starters, questioned why a drilling rig can be closer to a private well than to a public water supply. The draft plan says borewells must be 2,000 feet from a public groundwater well or surface water intake but can be 1,000 feet from a private well.  “It seems we should care as much about private wells as public,” Mizeur said. “If a private well is damaged, the homeowner is out the entire value of the property.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser with Chevron Government Affairs, said imposing a 2,000-foot setback from all wells would make locating a spot for drilling all the more difficult. He said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a private water supply. (I can think of only two: huge “water buffalo” replacement tanks, a term I had never encountered before reading about families in Pennsylvania who had lost use of their water; and hooking up a household to the public water supply. That’s also done in Pennsylvania, leaving families with a monthly water bill and a feeling of contamination they never had before.) Although he said he didn’t want to discuss all the setbacks, Kupfer said, “I do think a number of these are excessive, based on actual scientific evidence.”

Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew J. Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory had a different assessment of setbacks. In their recommended BMPs that are the basis for the state’s draft, they write: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data. Nevertheless, both industry and the state benefit when setbacks are clearly stated in statutes or regulations.”

Eight incorporated municipalities in Garrett County have public water systems from surface water and groundwater, while the remaining properties in the county have private wells. Private wells are concentrated most heavily around McHenry, Grantsville and Oakland, according to the DNR.  In all, 14,264 private wells are in the county, including 8,250 wells on top of land that at one point was leased for Marcellus Shale. (Not all of the leases remain in effect.)

Mizeur insisted that the loss of a private well to one family is a “gigantic disruption. They don’t have water to bathe in or drink.” And their property is worthless, Commissioner Paul Roberts said. He again argued for the 2,000-foot setback — a buffer federal regulators granted to Dominion Transmission Inc. when it sought to protect its Sabinsville Storage Pool in Pennsylvania from nearby fracking.  He says the state has no justification for the 1,000-foot setback and shouldn’t be in a position of “disregard[ing] evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.”

Kupfer insisted there “clearly is a difference” between a private well and a source for public water. The setbacks are based on a risk-benefit calculation, and “That’s just reality,” he said.

Roberts, a farmer and winery owner, wanted to include in the regulations a cap on levels of disturbance to the land. The draft BMPs include a 2 percent cap only in high-value watersheds. “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization,” he said. “If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said even the 2 percent disturbance would be “devastating” near trout streams.

The Eshleman report says strong BMPs can limit land disturbance to “less than 1 – 2 percent.” It recommends minimizing the number and density of well pads, because the “infrastructure will likely be in place for at least a 30-year period before final reclamation.”

“I hope someone is doing the math,” Roberts said a few days after the meeting. A 2-percent cap “would be an outrageously high rate of development in a high-value watershed.”

Kupfer questioned a sentence in the draft that calls for initial drilling areas to be “removed from sensitive natural resource values.”  Christine Conn of DNR said the idea is to drill in “less sensitive areas” first to reduce “unintended impacts.”

Weber, though, said “I don’t know what is less needed for less-sensitive wells than for more-sensitive wells.”

Brigid Kenney of MDE said the state doesn’t intend to be “less protective” in any area, but “if we make a mistake, and something goes wrong, we will have time to correct [that] if what goes wrong is not in the most sensitive place.” 

Chairman David Vanko, for not the first time, suggested an airplane analogy: One wouldn’t fly a new plane over Manhattan, he said.  At a previous meeting, he has said the goal is to make fracking in Maryland as safe as the airline industry. Which seems overly optimistic. And beside the point, because airline travel is not compulsory, while living next to drilling will be if fracking goes forward.

Commissioner Harry Weiss, an attorney in fracked Pennsylvania, heralded the proposed Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plans (CGDP). “I don’t know whether industry will buy into this,” he said, “[but] to the extent this survives…what we are seeing is a revolution in this field…[that is] designed to give Maryland the most protective program in the nation.” He said he is “skeptical that it will fly, in that companies will squawk,” but if Maryland turns the BMPs into strong regulations, “Maryland will have the best…environmental protection program for shale gas development.”

Kupfer said he remained dissatisfied with state’s plan to require CGDPs. “I think saying one has the most protective [regulations] is not necessarily the most desirable in itself.” The state could have the most protective plan but then no gas development. “I think it’s highly unlikely that any company will go through this process,” he said. The CGDPs involve “too many moving pieces,” and the “resources involved for uncertain outcome would not be worth it.”

Last year, Garrett County closed two elementary schools rather than raise property taxes. Assessments had yielded $2 million less in revenue than the previous year, and even a last-minute $500,000 addition from the Board of Commissioners wasn’t enough.  George Edwards, who is a member of the shale advisory commission, a state senator in Garrett since 2007 and a long-time delegate, has mentioned the budget gap and the school closings as a rationale for fracking. He anticipates and welcomes what he predicts will be an economic boost from this industry. But this solution – fracking for a fossil fuel – seems unimaginative and counterproductive, as it puts those very schoolchildren in the middle of an industrial zone (borehole setback from occupied building: 1,000 feet), jeopardizing their health, their rural and majestic surroundings, and even their climate. Fracking also threatens to crack the economic bedrock of the region’s tourism economy so dependent on scenic byways and wild rivers.  If Garrett is to “save” its schools in this manner, officials should at least rename them to honor their benefactor. How’s this: Chevron Elementary. And Fracking Elementary.

–by elisabeth hoffman


The Youghiogheny Overlook from I-68 might some day offer a view of drilling rigs.

Ready or not, best practices for fracking in Western Maryland will probably be released this week.

Decidedly not ready, according to four of the 15 commissioners on the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, who have argued that the release is premature. Last month, the four – Paul Roberts, Nick Weber, John Fritts and Delegate Heather Mizeur –complained in a letter to Gov. Martin O’Malley that recent advisory meetings have been called hastily. Commissioners therefore “had little or no opportunity to review and consider best management practices material for several meetings, resulting in subpar discussion and piecemeal conclusions to many of the issues before us.” A fifth commissioner, attorney Harry Weiss, expressed similar concerns about the rush to release the report on best management practices (BMPs) but didn’t sign the letter. Four of the five missed the most recent meeting, May 17, in part, they said, because they hadn’t had sufficient time to review the lengthy and technical report.  

On the same day, a coalition of groups –, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Maryland Environmental Health Network, Earthworks, Environment Maryland, Clean Water Action and Food & Water Watch –  sent a letter asking the directors of the Department of the Environment (MDE) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to delay until October release of the best practices. “Commissioners were chosen for their expertise and experience, yet in our view they are not given the time or the full opportunity to advise the agencies,” leaders of the groups said in a letter. The coalition also asked for details about how the state would undertake a “risk management analysis” to determine if fracking could be done safely. Several commissioners’ frequent questions about a formal risk assessment study have been left hanging.

Roberts said he recently “received assurances that deciding the scale of the [risk assessment] study was the next major priority.” The pressure from the letters, however, yielded only an extra few weeks to study the BMPs, and additional time to review the proposal is unlikely. At a meeting tomorrow (June 10) in Garrett County, commissioners will have a final look at the best practices that MDE and DNR drafted based on a 173-page report developed by Drs. Keith Eshleman and Andrew Elmore from the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory at the Center for Environmental Science. 

Once the plan is released, the public will have 30 days to submit comments. The release of the draft BMPs does not mean the commission or state is giving the nod to fracking in Maryland. “That decision is not being made now,” Chairman David Vanko rather uncharacteristically said at the May 17 meeting, perhaps in a gesture to the dissenters. “A lot of pieces have to fall in place before we are even close to making that determination,” including the health, economic and climate studies.         

At least Maryland is not going the way of the Illinois legislature, which just approved fracking regulations drawn up in a back room by lawmakers and representatives of industry, labor and a few big environmental groups. Illinois opted to skip those pesky and time-consuming health and economic studies and public hearings. 

As Marylanders evaluate the best practices for our state, we should at the very least hold the gas industry to its apparent endorsement of strong state regulations. At a hearing last week before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, industry executives repeatedly encouraged the federal government to back off and let the states do their work. 

  • Jack Williams, president of XTO Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of ExxonMobil Corp., heralded industry’s “commitment to operational integrity and effective risk management.” According to Williams, “Strong regulations at the state level protect health and the environment and provide the public confidence that these operations are done right.” (ExxonMobil’s disastrous pipeline break in Arkansas has been in the news of late. In addition, XTO is the subject of a class-action lawsuit involving injection wells for fracking waste in Arkansas. Residents claim “permanent trespass” from XTO’s practice of injecting waste underground without informing or compensating landowners.) 
  • Marc Edwards, senior vice president at Halliburton, insisted the debates about fracking had been “clouded by misinformation and false assertions.” He said that “state regulators are extremely knowledgeable about the geologies within their borders” and that “their local knowledge gives them an accurate understanding of environmental risks. They tailor their regulations to local conditions.”  (Halliburton is infamous for the loophole of the same name that exempts fracking from regulations under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and other federal laws that protect water and air.) 
  • Clay Bretches, a vice president at Anadarko Petroleum Corp., said his company “supports and recognizes the need for effective state-based regulation, similar to that which exists in Pennsylvania and Colorado.” (Back in Pennsylvania, though, environmentalists and some lawmakers are pleading with the state’s regulators to stop Anadarko from drilling in Loyalsock State Forest. Anadarko owns the mineral rights, and the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources is not sure it can limit access. Hundreds packed a hearing last week in Lycoming County to “keep it wild.”)
  • David Porges of EQT echoed the sentiment:  “The states are best-situated to regulate oil and gas activities” because they have “localized knowledge.” (EQT, along with Chevron Corp. and a few others, helped form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which endorses voluntary standards for fracking.)

Given the outpouring of support for state oversight, it’s curious that the drilling industry fights state and local regulations at every turn. At the shale advisory meetings in Maryland, the industry representative is Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser with Chevron. He repeatedly labels as “unrealistic” or “unfeasible” proposed best practices. (Bloomberg news reported yesterday that Chevron was named in a lawsuit by six families in Pennsylvania who say that fracking for natural gas has ruined the “quiet use and enjoyment” of their homes. The families are seeking damages because of the toxic chemicals, noise and odor from nearby gas wells.)

The centerpiece of the state’s proposed BMPs is to require companies to submit a five-year Comprehensive Gas Development Plan before getting a permit to drill. This plan will have to include location of well pads, roads, pipelines and all other facilities, although it won’t have to spell out the sequence of drilling. The company will have to present the plan at a public meeting that includes landowners, non-governmental organizations, government officials and others. 

But Kupfer said on a conference call line at the most recent meeting: “From my standpoint, making it mandatory – and even a five-year development timeline – is something that is frankly not feasible for operators to comply with.” Often some experimentation is involved with drilling, he said. If the company has leased 10,000 acres and acquires another hundred, is a new plan required, he wanted to know. The plan might also indicate that the company is missing a crucial piece of land, and the landowner might then hold out for more money. If 3,000-foot lateral drills were planned but had to be changed to 4,000-foot, does that require a new plan? And what criteria would DNR use to approve a plan? (A good question.)  “I just think it’s a nice concept,” he said, but “as a practical matter, I just don’t think this is workable.” 

Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser at MDE, said it would be in the company’s best interest to be as complete as possible in the five-year plan. As for driving up the cost of land, she said, “That is a risk a company takes whenever it submits an application.” 

Chairman Vanko suggested flexibility could be built into the requirements – because a company wouldn’t want to be locked into having said one thing and then doing another. 

Kupfer agreed, saying people often accuse a company of not acting in good faith. But “It’s just the way things work.” Ultimately, he said, “there would be a real reluctance for any company to go forward along these lines.” 

How about disclosure of chemicals before drilling?  Commissioner Clifford S. Mitchell, M.D., director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau, broached a “radical question”: forbidding the use of trade-secret chemicals for fracking in the state. Although these formulas are constitutionally protected, the state could stipulate that no trade-secret chemicals be used. “I’d like to put that out there” for discussion, he said. “If I feel strongly about anything, [it] is we should take a very strong stand against allowing trade-secret shields.” 

Commissioner Shawn Bender, a division manager at the Beitzel Corp. in Garrett County, said that approach would prohibit the use of Halliburton’s secret “food-grade” combination. 

“If I had to trust Halliburton, I’m not sure I would feel very comfortable about that,” Mitchell said. “As a clinician, I need to absolutely know . . . . If I am treating somebody, I absolutely have to know what the identity is . . . . I feel strongly” about that, he said.  

The draft says the state will require disclosure of chemicals; a company claiming trade secrets would have to divulge the information to MDE for review and so that it could be released to medical personnel if necessary. 

“As a practical matter,” companies don’t know what chemicals will be used at the time of the permit, Kupfer said.  

So, the state has come up with draft BMPs, based on research from the University of Maryland, but the regulations are always just too onerous for industry. 

Critics have questioned why the state is spending time and money developing BMPs before the required health, economic and climate studies. In particular, the BMPs ought to reflect the conclusions from health and climate studies. How, for example, does the state determine setbacks or other regulations without assessing risks? The draft seems more interested in making sure the shale gas is still accessible with the required setbacks than whether they offer meaningful protections.  Are even the best BMPs up to the job of protecting endangered species and fertile soil, children’s health and breathtaking vistas, livestock, pets and wild animals, rivers and wells, and a climate in turmoil?  

But the executive order setting up the study commission said the first report would be on best practices. All other studies and public review must be completed by August 1, 2014, when the executive order expires and the temporary moratorium goes away. Possible? We’ll see. At that point, though, whether the state truly intends to protect Marylanders from the hazards of fracking or whether the commission’s work was a charade will be apparent.   

–by elisabeth hoffman