I have just returned from the People’s National Oil & Gas Summit in Pittsburgh and I must say there are not enough words to describe and communicate a true understanding of the experience. For the first time this Summit was held in the east. A very clear, resounding message was that finally and almost thankfully for the first time the East meets the West. As one presenter put it, “ The experience with the drilling in the West is now the East’s canary in the coal mine.” What was unfortunately and undeniably evident is that the canary is on life support. [Photo: Weston Wilson, at right, talks with another participant at the Earthworks Oil and Gas Summit in Greentree. Photo: J.S. Jordan. Source: http://www.alleghenyfront.org/story.html?storyid=201011232303250.894688]
As I considered myself fairly informed on the issues of conventional and unconventional drilling (hydrofracking), I had no I idea what I really didn’t know. As Mayor Tillman of Dish Texas stated, “Once you know it, you can’t not know it.” Now, after many years of sleepless nights I will at least have a good reason.
The attendees at the conference represented many, many states and geographical areas from Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, Vermont, Florida, Washington D.C. West Virginia, Ohio, New York, the Onondaga Nation, Pennsylvania, Canada and many, many more.
The presenters on the numerous panels were passionate, diverse and experts in their fields. Heart wrenching accounts were given by landowners from Wyoming, Texas, Colorado and our own Stephanie Hallowich from Hickory Pa. All described in painful detail of losing their land, dream homes and the terrible health effects their families now endure. All were documented cases related to the drilling with all kinds of chemicals in their systems and ongoing chronic illnesses. They can’t afford to move because no one wants to buy their homes. These were just a few examples but it was very clear WE ALL may be in the same boat very soon.
The panels that presented represented multiple disciplines. Economists and a financial analyst gave specific data that the economic boom promoted by the gas industry and supported by the studies they funded (i.e. Penn State etc.) are much overstated and had many flaws. They proposed that the shell game that the gas industry has been playing will catch up to us much like the housing and mortgage bubble and the fall will be at least as traumatic. They projected that actual data from other gas plays indicates that it will not be economically feasible for the gas industry to continue and they may convert it again to oil but the boom will be over in a much shorter time then they are indicating…leaving a path of destruction economically, environmentally and with serious health impacts for generations to come.
Researchers and experts in the field of public health presented a very scientific, undisputable reality. The chemicals that are included in the fracking fluids result in a toxic exposure to our water supplies at various levels resulting in effects that may not be known for a very long time. As most of the concern has been about water, they were actually more concerned about air quality and volatile compounds which has gotten little attention and can be a much greater problem. The vapors created by the mixture of the chemicals can’t be contained and can go anywhere and does create ozone at ground level, creating many health conditions, besides contributing to green house gases. Their presentations were complex, science-based, and quite terrifying.
Then there was a scary, panel discussion of climate change and the impact of fossil fuels. There was no debate that climate change is occurring and what the earth’s tipping point is. The vigorous discussion centered around whether gas was actually a cleaner fuel than oil and coal and whether gas should be viewed as the bridge energy to alternative sources. This is really the big policy decision that needs addressed in the very near future if it has not already been decided.
Various agencies provided great information regarding technology and the collection and sharing of data (e.g., Sky Truth, Frac Tracker, Pitt, ExtrAct tools, and MIT) The emphasis being that they want real time data from people in the field. With the increased drilling and the cuts in regulatory agencies, accurate collection and monitoring by citizens (e.g., water dogs etc.) will become increasingly important.
And then came the bad news. There we were…. hundreds of people gathered from all over the country, with different situations, different backgrounds… some already with great life challenges, literally created by corporate greed and ignorance, but with one common agenda…how do we protect ourselves, our future generations and mother earth. The laws in our so called democracy do not protect or even respect individual rights in regards to this issue. The average person that owns property does not really have control over it or even their own health and well being. Corporate rights under the constitution have dominance. The road to overcome this will be long and hard (especially with a Robert’s supreme court). But, let us reflect on the long hard battles for amendments to the constitution that abolished slavery and instilled women’s rights. The battle is worth fighting and must be fought.
THERE CAN BE NO SHADOWS WITHOUT SUNSHINE
The keynote speakers during lunches and dinners were nothing short of outstanding. We were first enthusiastically welcomed by the president of the city counsel of Pittsburgh, Doug Shields, who was instrumental in the drilling ban in the city of Pittsburgh. What a welcoming speech he gave!! It kind of set you on fire. Our first lunch speakers were members of the Onondaga Nation. Their beliefs, convictions and understanding of the earth and reverence for our natural, life sustaining resources humbled us all. As Jeanne Shenandoah, communications director, with the Onondaga Nation stated, “ It is not a debate in our nation...we don’t have to decide…it is not going to happen.” I was pleased to have a conversation with Jeanne later and invited her to Kinzua Country which she graciously accepted.
Then there was Louis Gibbs, the housewife and mother who literally led the charge at Love Canal and was the driving force behind the Superfund initiatives. She is a national community activist and what a dynamic, inspirational figure. She was truly awesome!
The next keynote speaker was Weston Wilson, a top level EPA whistleblower. He was a brilliant engineer and he gave some great insight on how things really work. He expressed his great concerns about what we really don’t know about this type of drilling despite the industry’s claims of its safety—in particular, systemic air pathways, which may allow methane and other vapors, (i.e., volatile organic compounds) to escape vertically, especially considering different geological formations, into aquifers or wherever. He also pointed out all the exemptions from federal regulation (e.g., the Halliburton Loophole) that apply only to this type of drilling. Why would that be if it is so safe?
The final speaker of the Summit was of course Josh Fox, skyped in from Australia, where he is making Gasland II and trying to help there. He connected with some of those in the room who were in his film and he visibly choked up when he talked about missing Pennsylvania due to his ever increasing busy schedule. The gas industry is very busy there and he put on a rancher who talked about all the wells that have invaded his property and impacted on his quality of life. Mr. Dane’s words to us were “Australia is watching you…get it right.” Josh was humorous, encouraging, insightful and most of all inspiring. He even played his banjo! He had just received word that Gasland is on the short list for nomination of an academy award.
I realized how fortunate and proud I was to be associated with the ADP, an organization that has incredible integrity, researches the facts, and takes action. I also met some new friends from Elk and Jefferson counties who are eager and very prepared to take on the many challenges ahead. We are going to be meeting to form some strategies in the near future.
I interacted with many amazing people and met new friends. I connected with my new friend Gopa Ross. She is a Native American from Colorado who is on the board of directors of the Sierra Club. Boy, does she give them hell. Her philosophies and theirs are not always on the same page but she sticks in there to try to make a difference. She lost her beautiful ranch when the gas companies targeted her (with help from the Colorado authorities) because she asked a lot of questions and was very outspoken. I was struck by her comment that she has been meeting with her Elders and they have told her we don’t have long…the earth can only take so much. As she pointed out they have never told her anything that wasn’t true before. I will be left with the image of the rancher in the big cowboy hat and smile from Wyoming whose last slide in the presentation of the destruction of his ranch was a shot looking from his porch onto a well pad a few hundred feet away with a beautiful rainbow streaming onto it. His comment was, “…that is their pot of gold and our pot of poison.”
After listening to all the anecdotal cases, research studies, medical and environmental evidence I concluded a few things: There is NO SAFE HYDROFRACKING period! The studies being promoted by the industry that “natural” gas is our economic salvation which are being swallowed up by a gullible public, especially campaign enriched politicians, are overblown and in fact when all factors are considered may have the opposite effect. There is no such thing as “natural” gas…far from it! It is not a cleaner fossil fuel when all things are factored into the equation. It is another ploy by the world oil, now gas industries, to keep us dependent on fossil fuels. It is amazing we haven’t learned this lesson yet and those in power don’t want us to. Let’s concentrate on taking all their subsidies and tax breaks (and they are truly unbelievable) the industry is granted and redirect them into alternative energy sources where our long-term future lies. The oil/gas industry (not the individual workers) has no moral compass and as Weston Wilson put it “...they will try to squeeze blood out of a turnip and at any cost to others.”
Our world is in trouble. I am not Chicken Little…the sky is falling. It is coming sooner rather than later but we are not alone and must stick together …this is a worldwide problem. Unfortunately, the reality is in the end it is politics, money and greed that will drive this debate and policy…not science or people’s health or welfare. People must get involved and as individuals we must stand up for what is ours and what is right if we are to have a chance of leaving the next generation any quality of life.
As I left the Hotel this morning at 4 AM the traffic bustling and the air dense with smog, I was eager to get back to my beloved Kinzua Country. Driving home with tears in my eyes, reflecting on what I had learned… knowing what is to come....I did give thanks… as at least for today things will be unchanged and with knowledge comes power and with friendships comes strength and things will be ok.