Pennsylvania Republicans Block Fracking in Southeastern PA - Why Doesn't the Rest of PA Deserve the Same Protection?

Apparently, not all parts of Pennsylvania are created equal.  That, at least, would explain why just days before the July 4th holiday, many Republican state legislators who previously voted for Act 13 – the controversial law which completely decimates the authority of Pennsylvania towns to protect their residents from fracking  – overwhelmingly approved a last minute moratorium on gas drilling permits in the South Newark Basin (SNB or Basin), a small basin in Southeastern PA that contains natural gas-bearing rocks.

The moratorium, introduced as an amendment to a larger budget bill by Republican Senator Chuck McIlhinney (a supporter of Act 13), is in response to a recent report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS) finding that there is likely between 363 billion  to 1,698 billion cubic feet of gas stored in the Basin.  The amendment prevents the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection from issuing any new permits for drilling in the area until 2018 unless: 

  • “A study is completed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources [DCNR], in consultation with the municipalities located in the South Newark Basin, evaluating the practical resource recovery implications of the report… and the fiscal impact of oil and gas operations on the South Newark Basin,” and 
  • Further state legislation is passed allowing counties located on the South Newark Basin to elect to impose a well impact fee under Act 13.

So why does the SNB deserve careful study by the DCNR before permitting, but the Marcellus does not?  After all, wasn’t the intended purpose of Act 13 to create a uniform set of drilling regulations for the state?

The common refrain is that the SNB is a different type of formation than the Marcellus and it’s risks are not well studied.  In the words of Sen. McIlhenny, “We need to slow this down until we can do a study on it—see what’s there, see where it is, see how deep it is, study the impact, get the local supervisor’s [sic] thoughts on it.”  

This is all true.  The SNB is shallower than the Marcellus and drilling there poses some different risks, all of which should be fully studied in conjunction with input from municipalities.  But this still doesn’t explain why fracking in the Marcellus was permitted widely before any studies had been conducted there.  It also doesn’t explain why the risks of drilling in the Marcellus today don’t deserve a greater degree of scientific scrutiny than was undertaken by the Governor’s inadequate and highly political Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission Report before further permitting occurs.

In reality, the difference in treatment between the SNB and the Marcellus may have less to do with physical differences between the formations (or the legislative intent of Act 13), and more to do with where they are located.  While the Marcellus underlies predominantly rural communities in North and West, the SNB lies under the three wealthiest counties in the state by per capita income (Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery) as well as Bucks County, which is in the top 10 wealthiest.  As one reporter points out, these counties are also home to some high level state officials.

None of this is to say that the people of Southeastern Pennsylvania don’t deserve a thorough and scientific review of the impacts of fracking in the SNB before the state even thinks about permitting a well in their communities.  That they deserve it is without question.  But so do all Pennsylvania towns, regardless of where they are located or how badly industry wants the gas under their land. 

Equal protection for all Pennsylvanians, it’s not a revolutionary idea.