It seems that, of all Obama’s appointments, the EPA’s Lisa Jackson is emerging as the best friend of the people who elected him – albeit under considerable pressure from Congress and demonstrators. Lately the agency has not only undertaken to review the environmental effects of hydraulic fracture gas drilling nationwide, but, in West Virginia, has proposed to veto a permit that the Army Corps of engineers had already approved for a large mountaintop-removal coal mine. This is a big reprieve for poor West Virginia. In recent years it has had to endure the despoliation of its land and communities by both Granddaddy Coal and its fat and gassy stepchild, which is now drilling in southern edge of the Marcellus shale. Of course, that’s in part because West Virginia is ... poor. But the fact of politics is that this kind of large-scale despoliation happens in rich states, too.
I listened this morning to a WBAI interview with Jeff Biggers, author of a new book about coal, Reckoning at Eagle Creek. A journalist and the grandson of a coal miner, Biggers outlined the deceptive mantras of the coal industry which, together with massive political contributions, successfully kept legislators and regulators off its back for generations. Jimmy Carter, having promised to ban strip mining during his campaign, apparently learned how difficult it was push back against such a powerful industry, and never acted on his promise.
Coal was cheap as long as no one tallied its environmental and health consequences or gave any thought to cleaning up its messes, and it’s been long embedded in our national culture as the principal source of electric energy. The “jobs” mantra has played a substantial role in the schmeer effort by Big Coal even though it has turned out that jobs have considerably shrunk over time, owing in part to the mechanization of the strip mining process. Over the same time, the governmental response to coal issues, Biggers says,-- even where the causal connection between strip mining and environmental or health damage was demonstrated -- has been a predictable compromise: to minimize the environmental damage rather than to curtail the particular practice that perpetuates it.
Now, Coal has convinced many, including Obama himself, that it can be “clean”. The industry has spent not one dime, says Biggers, to develop clean coal, but it claims that underground sequestration of carbon will curb the emissions that contribute to global warming. The industry doesn’t mention that the sequestration process in itself requires considerable energy, and thus more coal to burn and more money in Coal pockets.
Here in New York’s portion of the Marcellus region, the not-so-flush southern tier, West Virginia history seems about to repeat itself with natural gas. Gas may be cleaner than coal, but not while it’s being produced. The promise of tax revenues and other income to the state from gas drilling, and the deceptive promises of local community revival which I have reviled in previous posts, have blinded officials to the vast environmental damage that will result if anything like the officially projected quantity of deep shale wells is ever realized. Our New York regulator is firmly rooted to the compromise strategy of minimizing environmental damage from natural gas drilling by, e.g., providing setbacks measured in 100 or fewer feet (your pond must be at least 50 feet downstream of a gas well), and resolutely ignoring the compounding of negative impacts where more than one well is sited in a particular environment. The spills, methane migrations, and illegal dumpings across the border in Pennsylvania and in other gas-rich states, the unusual concentrations of disease symptoms within drilling communities, the economic ill health of many post-drilling communities – none of these things is leading toward any official determination in New York that drilling should be banned or limited. It seems instead to have brought on one-upmanship – Hey, our guys (all sixteen of them) can do this better than you!
We can hope that the EPA’s promised new study of “hydrofracking” won’t be too little and too late to avert serious toxic disaster. It is an entirely new EPA from the one under the Bush administration which simply cleared the path for whatever industry wanted to do. The agency’s 2004 study of the process, which concluded that hydraulic fracturing posed “little or no threat to drinking water”, did not even involve
water testing. It is that flawed conclusion that the gas industry touts every time it fears that state officials will wise up to the true facts.
If you are a New Yorker, be sure to sign the petition to the DEC demanding that it wait for the EPA study results before issuing any permits for hydraulic fracture drilling.