Over the past few months, President Donald Trump has claimed President-elect Joe Biden would get rid of fracking if elected, while in reality, Biden supports a gradual shift away from natural gas use — but whether fracking ended up a pivotal issue for Pennsylvanians this past election cycle is guesswork.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the practice of forcing liquid, air or chemicals into the ground at high pressures to extract oil or gas.
In 2008, Pennsylvania became a prime spot for fracking because of the Marcellus Shale formation, which is a natural gas field and sedimentary rock structure located thousands of feet below the ground — the largest of its kind in the U.S. The formation covers large portions of Pennsylvania, but primarily its northeastern and southwestern regions.
The method brought with it around 32,000 industry jobs — about as many people employed at Penn State — to Pennsylvania in the middle of The Great Recession.
Now, there are 7,788 active wells in the commonwealth, according to an NPR state impact report. There are 26 located in Centre County, in Burnside, Curtin and Snowshoe Townships.
Because of Pennsylvania’s plentiful oil and gas reserves, it has remained at the center of the fracking debate. While proponents of fracking — including industry executives, crane operators, politicians, buyers and distributors — hold that fracking is essential to the state’s economy, climate activists, researchers and other politicians say its negative environmental and health consequences are cause for concern.
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Jennifer Baka, an assistant professor in Penn State’s Department of Geography and a member of the Environmental Justice Advisory Board for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, studied fracking and the discourse surrounding it.
In April 2019, Baka co-authored a paper on environmental knowledge surrounding fracking, concluding that people generally trust government-sponsored research more than research backed by environmental non-governmental organizations or gas lobby funds.
This, she said, has numerous implications for fracking as a political issue.
“People on both sides of the argument, like pro-fracking, anti-fracking, they would use the same [Environmental Protection Agency] study to support their claims,” Baka said. “So everybody's engaged in the scientific study, but looking at it in a different way.”
Baka said Biden didn’t want to “put the kibosh” on fracking, as some Republicans have claimed, adding that the practice’s job-creation promises are not entirely evidence-based.
“The oil and gas industry is highly specialized... you have a boom phase, and you need to mobilize the workers and get the rigs out there really fast,” Baka said. “If Pennsylvania didn't have the labor force ready, which was the case with the initial fracking boom back in 2008, a lot of those jobs are going to people from out of state who are coming here to work temporarily.”
Kai Schafft, a professor of education and rural sociology at Penn State, agreed with Baka that jobs created in “the beginning years of the boom… didn’t really go to Pennsylvania.” The jobs not directly tied to the oil and gas industry that were created, he added, were largely lower-paid, insecure service sector jobs.
“At the end of the day, some people did quite well — particularly those that managed to generate some significant income through leasing revenues — but those were the folks that were arguably wealthier to begin with and had land to lease,” Schafft said. “...I think the industry had a lot of potential opportunity connected to it and a lot of potential risk, but that opportunity and that risk were not evenly distributed across communities.”
Schafft co-authored an op-ed, published in the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, that looked at fracking’s impact on rural economies through the lens of school district finances. He found that despite promises of economic opportunity from the unconventional gas production industry, Pennsylvania school districts in which fracking has been common “continue to struggle financially.”
“In fact, what we found was that school districts that had experienced drilling during this time back in the day had lower per-pupil revenues and lower wealth indicators than those places that did not have drilling activity,” Schafft said.
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In June, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro — who was recently reelected — released a statewide grand jury report investigating the impacts of fracking on public and environmental health.
The report criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health for a lack of oversight regarding air and water pollution from nearby well pads.
Investigators spoke to over 70 homeowners who live near these drilling sites, who, according to the report, “described sleeping in corners of their basements in an effort to escape the bright lights and noise… When they sought help from local authorities, their pleas often fell on deaf ears.”
Lou Mayer — president of the Centre County Pennsylvania Senior Environmental Corps, a group of volunteers that regularly tests and publishes data on local streams — aims to inform the public regarding local water quality.
Since 2002, two teams involved with the group have monitored 12 different Marcellus Shale sites, collecting data on conductivity, pH levels, total dissolved solids, salinity and macroinvertebrate levels — the “ultimate measure of a stream’s health,” according to Mayer. The data is then sent to a Penn State chemical analysis lab, which assesses the samples for heavy metals like manganese, aluminum and cadmium.
Mayer said that for the Marcellus watershed sites, the two teams have “not seen too much of a change in values away from what you would expect, had there not been any wells.”
This is due to a number of factors, Mayer said, including low prices of and demand for natural gas, but also the fact that operators in Centre County have, by and large, operated “with a level of care for the environment.”
But if the water quality of a site the group monitors did suddenly change — and it has in years past with cases involving cow waste runoff and contamination from a nearby fish hatchery — the corps contacts the Centre County Watershed Authority, which then investigates and resolves the issue.
The CCPaSEC has continued to meet monthly via Zoom and monitor its sites in socially distanced, masked groups of four to six. Mayer added, however, that other chapters of the PaSEC in other counties have not had the required resources or funding to continue their efforts.
“We've been very fortunate, being in a university town like this with a lot of talented people,” Mayer said. “Some of the other groups, unfortunately, throughout the state, are not as fortunate as Centre County… and so they've had to give up their work.”
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Because of this, Mayer worries about other areas in the state that are potentially more affected by overflow from heavy industry activity, but where resources aren’t accessible to measure its impact.
“I really think knowing that there are people in the community invested in knowing what the quality of the water is, or at least concerned about it, serves as a check and a balance in order to keep water supply safe,” Mayer said.
Schafft said the future of fracking was in jeopardy before the pandemic hit. While the virus has decreased the demand for fossil fuels, he said the bigger issue was the boom and subsequent bust that occurred as a result of oil and gas flooding the market and dropping its prices.
Because of this, Schafft doesn’t see fracking as having the “immediate salience” that it used to as a political issue for Pennsylvanians.
“I see [fracking] as a much bigger deal for the industry than it is for the average Pennsylvanian,” Schafft said. “...It's kind of in the rearview mirror. Fracking is still taking place here, we still have oil and gas industry, but it's not the juggernaut that it was a decade ago.”