Political Fractures Over Fracking

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The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC)—a five-member committee that governs the water resources around the Delaware River—was supposed to meet today to decide on whether hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, should be allowed in the river’s watershed. There’s currently a ban on drilling for natural gas within the 13,539 sq. mi Delaware Basin, which includes land bordering the river in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware, each of which gets one vote on the DRBC. (The Army Corps of Engineers, which represents the federal government, gets the last vote.) The DRBC had proposed ending that moratorium, and the meeting might have clarified policy. But that summit was abruptly postponed on November 18, after Delaware Governor Jack Markell announced that he would vote against lifting the ban.

With Pennsylvania—led by strongly pro-drilling Tom Corbett—and New Jersey in favor of lifting the ban, while New York, which still has its own fracking moratorium in place, and Delaware against it, it may come down to the federal government. But what’s striking is how deep the divisions seem to be on the commission itself, which governs a river basin that supplies drinking water for more than 15 million people, including Philadelphia and New York City.

Here’s Delaware Secretary of Environment and Energy Collin O’Mara explaining why his state is against changing the ban:

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Once the genie’s out of the bot­tle, it could take years if not decades to clean up con­t­a­m­i­na­tion if we don’t get this right. And we’ve seen prob­lems in other states where [well] cas­ings have failed. And we keep say­ing in every way pos­si­ble that it’s much more impor­tant to be right than to try to move fast.

And here’s Pennsylvania’s Corbett complaining in a statement about the delay:

Today’s delay – dri­ven more by pol­i­tics than sound sci­ence – is a deci­sion to put off the cre­ation of much-needed jobs, to put off secur­ing our energy inde­pen­dence, and to infringe upon the prop­erty rights of thou­sands of Penn­syl­va­ni­ans.

So in other words, the DRBC is stands pretty much where the rest of the country is on shale gas drilling and fracking: deeply divided over the potential benefits and potential costs. (For more background on fracking and the DRBC, check out this project from NPR’s StateImpact team.) There’s no doubt that America’s enormous shale gas reserves have the potential—and indeed are well on their way—to changing energy politics both here and around the world. Those who have leased their land for drilling stand to make small fortunes, enough to save farmers who’ve been on the edge of bankruptcy for years. But there’s real environmental concern about the risk of water contamination from fracking and drilling—and even more pressing from a practical perspective, there is angry opposition to drilling from many people on the ground in the communities being fracked. In a year of observing the shale gas issue, I’ve seen far more grassroots energy opposing fracking than I ever saw from greens over the much, much bigger question of climate change.

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In a story published in the New York Times Magazine, the writer Eliza Griswold gets at this division, profiling a single small community in southwestern Pennsylvania that’s been divided by drilling:

In Amwell Township, your opinion of fracking tends to correspond with how much money you’re making and with how close you live to the gas wells, chemical ponds, pipelines and compressor stations springing up in the area. Many of those who live nearby fear that a leak in the plastic liner of a chemical pond could drip into a watershed or that a truck spill could send carcinogens into a field of beef cattle. (According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, 65 Marcellus wells drilled this year have been cited for faulty cement casings, which could result in leaks.) But for many other residents, including Haney’s neighbors, the risks seem small, and the benefits — clean fuel, economic development — far outweigh them.

The story—which covers some of the same territory as my TIME cover on fracking from this spring—is well worth reading, especially because Griswold forgoes the hype and simply reports on how different close-up experience with fracking can be for the residents of the same town. There’s no getting around the fact that shale gas drilling—even if it were regulated perfectly, which as this article from Mike Soraghan shows, it most certainly is not—is a highly industrialized process that brings intense and disruptive changes to rural communities. In this way, the decentralized nature of shale gas drilling—with tens of thousands of wells in Pennsylvania alone—works against it. There will always be people against those sorts of changes and inconveniences, especially in the much more densely populated East. That opposition is conservative with a small “c.”

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Gas companies point out that the initial period of drilling and fracking these wells was always going to be disruptive, and that over time, the land will be reclaimed, the trucks will be gone and the process will be far less visible. That’s fair, although those same companies are also salivating to get at Utica Shale plays that lay beneath the Marcellus Shale, which means drilling and fracking in the region could go on for some time. But I’ve spent some time recently with high-level executives in the gas industry, and I don’t think they understand the depth of the popular opposition to fracking in some parts of the East, or the challenge they face in convincing the American public that shale gas is worth the trouble. (And guess what? Military psych ops is not the solution.) There’s a trust gap on shale gas in the East, and it’s up to gas companies—and the government—to heal those fractures first.

Bryan Walsh is a senior writer at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bryanrwalsh. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME