The language of the proposed ordinance lacks teeth and provides a huge amount of wiggle room. In my opinion, as a former business owner, it’s actually quite favorable to a driller – that is unless he’s encumbered by high principles and scruples. I’ve marked up the linked copy to highlight specifics. Before discussing these, let’s look at the context in which they will come into play.
The driller is likely to be a limited liability corporation (LLC). This means just what the name implies. The corporation exists to shield its owners from otherwise unlimited liability for the risks of the business. The street savvy owner can pour just enough money into the LLC to conduct operations. When things go wrong, the LLC can be allowed to go bankrupt. But if things go well, the cash generated flows to the owner(s). Banks know this and they generally require the owners of such a business to personally co-sign for loans.
The municipalities and the public has no such protection. Even if Exxon-Mobil, with its vast resources were backing the LLC it would be extremely difficult if not impossible to collect more than the assets of the drilling LLC. Financial responsibility is thus a really big concern. The proposed ordinance has provisions for a bond ($50,000) and unspecified liability insurance, but neither of these is sufficient protection considering the massive risks and likelihood of leaks, spills, and fires.
There is always expense involved in enforcement. With an operation like well drilling and fracking, much of the work is conducted out of sight using practices and procedures unfamiliar to regular code enforcement personnel. Violations can easily go undiscovered until irreparable harm has been done and/or a disaster brings them to light.
The proposed ordinance has a lot of language that requires subjective judgment. You can bet that a driller will insist on the most lenient and cost efficient interpretation. It will be up to the enforcing authority to decide if they wish to spend the money to litigate. Litigation is a slow and deliberate process with many opportunities for delay and diversion.
The court docket’s always crowded, and the best lawyers bill their time $300, $500 or more an hour – and yes, you do need that level of talent when stakes are high. Justice has a very high price, even if you are the government.
I recommend that you see for yourself. But here are my observations and objections:
- The “standards” are vague and invite litigation.
- The language relies on PA and Federal regulations that have failed to protect others in our state.
- The setbacks for operations are only 100 feet. Some of the trucks used in these operations are nearly that long (70 feet).
- Drilling can create permanent pathways for migration of toxic material (arsenic, radon) outside the well casing. Once drilled and fractured it can’t be undone.
- The documents propose a 15 acre minimum tract. Wells commonly are drilled with multiple branches extending out 1 or 2 miles from the well site. They can resemble spokes of a wheel where the vertical well shaft is the axle and horizontal branches radiate out. There even can be such “wheels” at a second level. The fracturing begins near at end of the each branch.
- Fracking uses huge volumes of water. Fresh water is combined with “trade secret” toxic chemicals and fine sand (also toxic) to make the injection fluid. After fracturing much of this is ejected, followed and combined with “produced water” or brine from the shale. Where the geological formations permit, these fluids are dumped into deep disposal wells. Such wells are associated with seismic activity (earthquakes), and much more rarely, so is fracking. It may not be possible to show direct cause and effect in an individual instance. Indeed, advocates of fracking insist that the geometric increase in the number of quakes is mere coincidence. Not much help when the foundation of one’s home is cracking.
- The staging and rapid handling of the large volume of toxic fluids, produced brine, chemicals, and dusty sand make spills almost inevitable with the probability of surface water contamination. Storm water management is a problem. Open retaining ponds are a source of air pollution.
- The logistics require thousands of heavy truck trips over roads to and from the well site greatly increasing maintenance costs, and creating major inconvenience and traffic hazards.
- Although the proposed ordinance seeks to regulate the hours of operation, the pressurized fluid in the ground does not respect such intentions. Some extraction equipment may, of necessity, operate 24/7. At currently operating drill sites it is always 24/7.
- Oil and gas wells leak methane and other gasses. In fact, research shows that the leaks wipe out the principal advantage of natural gas as a clean-burning fuel. The unburned methane that leaks is many times more damaging than the carbon dioxide of combustion.
- The limitations of sound levels are well intended, but meaningless. Loudness is a subjective perception that is relative to ambient sounds (birds, crickets, leaves rustling). When one is enjoying the stillness of a country evening, the smallest sounds carry miles. The measurement would presumably be made at the boundary of the site. The “45 decibels” specified is equivalent to the ambient sound level in a home. But a diesel truck at 100 feet is 70 decibels and measured at curbside it is 80 decibels. There will be continuous diesel traffic. These noises measured at the source of the noise it would be exponentially louder. Terrain and environmental conditions can cause sound to travel great distances with intermediate “dead” zones. Obviously it is very difficult to regulate noise pollution.
- A well head or pipeline fire is beyond the training and equipment of local firefighters, yet it is a real risk.
- Once water supplies are contaminated complete remediation in nearly impossible.
- The smells and toxins in airborne pollution drift miles from the drilling site.
There’s more, but this captures the essence of the criticism. One telling aspect of the proposed ordinance document is the fact that the specifications for the chain link fence for the site are more lengthy and detailed than the noise or pollution provisions.
[This post was updated to incorporate suggestions and corrections from Betty Tatham.]