When drilling for natural gas began in Southwestern Pennsylvania in the 2000s, industry leaders took great pains to suggest that there were almost no downsides to the process.
Jobs would be created as a result of hydraulic fracturing. Royalties would flow to landowners with mineral rights. The cleaner-burning fuel would make the region an energy leader and help restore some of the economic vitality that had been lost when manufacturing evaporated.
Sure, there were some naysayers who said fracking wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and some residents living near drilling sites said they experienced upset stomachs, nosebleeds, breathing woes, sick pets and water that looked like “black sludge.” But the industry and many elected officials shrugged off concerns about the safety and environmental impact of fracking. It just seemed like too much of a good thing for everyone.
But a 243-page report following a two-year statewide grand jury investigation has found that the worries about fracking were well-placed. After close to 300 hours of testimony, the grand jury found that the relationship between the industry and regulators in Pennsylvania was too chummy, there was a veritable revolving door between the industry and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and that the regulations that were in place were not sufficient to protect individuals who lived near wells.
“When it comes to fracking, Pennsylvania failed,” according to Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general.
The report arrives at a moment when clouds have gathered over the natural gas industry. Prices have been low due to growing supplies and reduced consumption, the royalties paid to landowners have dipped, and two natural gas companies – Range Resources and Cabot Oil & Gas – each entered no contest pleas last month to charges of environmental crimes at two sites in Washington County. Shapiro slammed Range Resources for its carelessness when the charges were announced.
Joseph Otis Minnott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, explained that “the fracking industry has run roughshod on the people of Pennsylvania. The grand jury’s report reveals the tragic consequences of our state government’s hands-off approach to fracking.”
The grand jury report recommends that no-drill zones be expanded from 500 to 2,500 feet, that companies inform the public about chemicals being used in fracking, that pipelines be regulated, that toxic waste be transported more safely from from fracking sites, and, perhaps most importantly, the revolving door between the DEP and the natural gas industry come to an end.
When he was vying to become the Pennsylvania’s top law enforcement officer, Shapiro vowed that he would “hold the frackers accountable.”
With this scathing report, he has.