Most people who know the facts about shale drilling are uncomfortable with the practice. Although it may bring much needed revenue to the state, the secrecy of drilling companies and negative environmental impacts make many wonder if it is worth it.
It is not an issue for the future, drilling is already well underway in the state, with some 6,000 wells currently operating in the Delaware River Basin alone. The state government has made the issue worse by pursuing policies and enacting laws that amount to giving drilling companies a free pass.
The Kidder Township Environmental Advisory Council's regularly scheduled August 11th meeting brought more important issues to light. The meeting was attended by delegates from the Carbon County Constitutionalists, a conservative group opposed to drilling as a property rights and environmental issue.
"How is it legal for a corporation to come onto private land and start drilling?" asked the leader of the Constitutionalists, Gene Duffy. EAC member Hank George responded by explaining that private property owners grant drilling companies a lease to enter their land. "All that land owners are allowing the companies to do is enter their land. For that they are paid handsomely," he said.
Contrary to popular belief, land owners are not selling the right to drill on their land. "This is an issue of mineral rights," said George, "if a company owns the mineral rights they are legally allowed to do anything they want to get those minerals, all land owners are saying is that the companies have permission to go onto their property."
Mineral rights are an extremely important, if little known, factor in the issue of drilling. "Mineral rights have precedent over land owners rights," explained George. "If you own the land but not the mineral rights underneath there is nothing you can do to stop a company from getting to those minerals." This issue is a historic one for Carbon County. The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company purchased the mineral rights for the whole of the county during the course of their operations many years ago.
A member of the Constitutionalists then asked about the fact that Article 1 Section 27 of the Pennsylvania State Constitution explicitly describes clean air and water as inherent rights of the states population. "How are companies allowed to violate that?" he asked.
George explained how. "When a township creates an ordinance and a drilling company sues that township saying it interferes with their rights, one thing that happens often is that the township will site Article 1 Section 27," he said, "But the issue on the docket before the judge isn't about that, it's about the interference with companies rights and the judge has to rule on the issue in the docket. So in court cases, the Constitutional infringement often isn't the issue so it isn't applicable."
Given the difficulty of prosecuting or stopping drilling, environmental impacts follow almost as a matter of course. There are currently no laws, either state or federal, which can force companies to disclose all the chemicals used in hydrofracking. Further, there are no methods for adequately removing these chemicals from the water supply, companies often just dilute the chemicals or contract their disposal to township water treatment plants unable to handle the toxic chemicals involved.
Beyond the issue of waste, there is also the issue of water removal from local watertables and streams. Each well can use as much as 6 million gallons of water. "It's a given that the Lehigh will be affected," said George. "It's a part of the Delaware Water River Basin. Water will be taken out and dirty water will go in. These operations use so much water that there have been rivers in Western Pennsylvania sucked dry because of water withdrawal."