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Ferlo has concerns about fracking

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By Chuck Biedka and Tim Puko

Published: Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

State Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Pittsburgh, is calling for a moratorium on state-issued fracking permits.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” is used to squeeze natural gas from Marcellus shale about a mile below the earth's surface.

Advocates say fracking has driven down the cost of natural gas, provided tax money and good-paying jobs. But opponents insist fracking is damaging the environment.

Ferlo, who represents portions of the Alle-Kiski Valley as well as his Highland Park neighborhood in Pittsburgh, wants a study commission appointed to “conduct an unbiased study” of fracking issues.

They include water source protection, air quality regulations, disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, and the state's permitting process.

Ferlo said there have been 366 fracking well violations of varying kinds statewide this year through July and about 6,000 violations since 2000.

The senator said his legislation, if enacted, wouldn't threaten jobs or local tax revenue. The state has issued more than 14,400 unconventional (horizontal) well permits, but only about 7,000 of the wells have been drilled so far.

“So there's room for growth,” he said.

“I don't deny that jobs have been created and there has been some economic benefit,” Ferlo said. “But on counter-balance, what is the impact on the air, water quality and the like?

The moratorium would only be partial and temporary, giving the state enough time to pass stricter regulations before it opens the door for new drilling permits, Ferlo said. The bill would mandate several improvements to the new regulations that the Legislature set in last year's oil and gas reforms, Act 13. Ferlo called that law weak.

Ferlo said after a press conference Wednesday that he knows it will be difficult to get his bill passed by a Republican-led Capitol, but he's pushing his bill in order to put political pressure on Gov. Tom Corbett.

There's been growing support for the state to take a tougher stance in managing the drilling industry, Ferlo said, and his bill would seize on that momentum to improve the industry.

He hopes that by getting his message heard, he can convince opponents within his own party to change their minds and support a moratorium.

About 40 people attended Ferlo's press conference and rally, many whom are activists who come to a lot of these events, including former Pittsburgh councilman Doug Shields.

“We're proud to be called the canaries in the Marcellus shale drilling fields,” Ferlo said. “Our basic water resources are being threatened.”

Ferlo introduced Terry L. Greenwood, 65, a farmer from West Pike Run, Washington County. He claims natural gas drilling polluted his water and killed 10 calves, blinding four others, after fracking started five years ago on his farm. Eight more calves and cows died this year, he claims from lingering effects.

He doesn't trust state Department of Environmental of Protection workers who ruled the drilling industry wasn't at fault for a lot of his farm's water problems.

“You started drilling on our property, and we had all these problems,” he said at a podium set up in the Allegheny County Courthouse Courtyard. “We've been farming for 20 years without any problems like this. ... Water is more important than gas.”

The DEP's frequent defense of the drilling industry and the industry's political contributions to Corbett have pushed a lot of the opposition to drilling in Pennsylvania, Ferlo and others said. People don't trust the agency to rigorously enforce the rules and challenge the industry, they said.

“If the DEP was truly effective, we wouldn't be having this conversation,” said Peg Schmidt, a Pittsburgh resident who heard about the rally through her church.

“We're not trying to shut down the industry as our critics say,” Ferlo said.

But critics such as Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said a moratorium would simply chase jobs from Pennsylvania to Ohio and other states.

Ward said she respects Ferlo, but disagrees completely with Ferlo's SB1100.

The natural gas industry has created jobs and is helping to “make us energy independent,” Ward said.

Ward said state Act 13, among other things, already specifies chemicals used in fracking.

The region's other state senators weren't available for comment on Wednesday, but two state representatives said the bill should be rejected.

“This is just silly,” said Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Ford City, who helped to write Act 13 and is chairman of the mining subcommittee for the House Environmental Resources & Energy committee.

“This will have a serious and detrimental effect on Armstrong County.

“Farmers are telling me, ‘Now we can keep the farm,' and Act 13 has turned over about $1.4 million to the county,” Pyle said.

Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, asks why fracking is again the focus of legislation.“Why is he trying to rehash these arguments?” Evankovich said. “There have been over 7,000 Marcellus shale wells drilled in Pennsylvania. If there were major issues, it would have been stopped. When problems are seen, they are addressed at the site and regulations are adopted.”

The industry's Marcellus Shale Coalition opposes the Ferlo plan.

Saying the industry is “tightly regulated,” MSC spokesman Steve Forde said, “Responsible shale production is generating hundreds of millions of dollars in state and local tax revenue, helping to put nearly a quarter of a million Pennsylvanians to work, sharply reducing energy costs for families and businesses, bolstering American competitiveness and dramatically enhancing air quality.

“For these reasons, and many more, this historic opportunity for the Commonwealth and the nation continues to enjoy broad bipartisan public support.”

SB 1100 probably will be assigned to the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. A search of the General Assembly's public computer system Wednesday showed that SB1100 wasn't yet in the system.

Chuck Biedka and Tim Puko are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Biedka can be reached at 724-226-4711 or cbiedka@tribweb.com. Puko can be reached at 412-320-7991 or tpuko@tribweb.com.

 

 
 


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