Inquirer Editorial: Gas-tax foes prefer cash

CLEM MURRAY / Staff
CLEM MURRAY / Staff
Posted: October 13, 2010

As reluctant Senate Republicans in Harrisburg approach their arbitrary deadline for approving a tax on methane production, there's fresh evidence why it matters.

A preliminary study by Academy of Natural Sciences researchers indicates pollution of streams could be a routine result of drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale formation. That's aside from the contamination caused by accidental spills.

The researchers compared streams where there was little or no drilling, and watersheds with many methane wells nearby. They found evidence of contamination was almost twice as high in streams with high-density drilling.

More study is needed, but the data suggest that high-pressure "fracking" of rock deep underground carries significant environmental harm even when it is carried out to industry standards.

These early results shouldn't come as a shock. Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of fresh water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand more than a mile underground to break apart the shale and release the methane within.

Some, but not all, of the frack fluid returns to the surface in concentrations saltier than seawater. Then, it's treated before being returned to rivers and streams.

New York declared a moratorium on such drilling to find out first whether it's safe. But Pennsylvania elected officials, awash in campaign donations from the industry, haven't had such qualms.

The state has issued more than 5,000 permits for Marcellus Shale gas wells, and more than 2,200 wells have been drilled. The Rendell administration has even leased thousands of acres in state forests to drillers.

Pennsylvania is the only major gas-producing state without a tax on methane production. And it would remain so, if the Senate GOP fails to act by Thursday.

That's when senators plan to go home to campaign for reelection, courtesy of S.W. Jack Drilling, East Resources, and other drillers who are getting exactly what they're paying for in Harrisburg - inaction.

A severance tax would help affected communities and the state to pay for environmental cleanup of methane drilling, road repairs, and other needs. Senate Republican leaders pledged in writing in June to enact a tax by Oct. 1.

The Democratic-led House approved a tax two weeks ago, in spite of the industry's generous donations in recent years to big players in both parties, including Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene), $29,400; and Appropriations Committee member Dave Reed (R., Indiana), $57,042. Shockingly, both said no to a tax.

In the Senate, members have accepted an average of $8,148 from drilling interests. But some senators are more "concerned" about the issue than others, including Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson), $117,575; Sen. Don White (R., Indiana), $47,975; and Appropriations Committee chairman Jake Corman (R., Bellefonte), $33,850. That's a lot of concern.

There's no good reason that the Senate couldn't come back after this week to work on the issue.

If the Senate fails to act, it will likely mean no gas-production tax. The gubernatorial candidate leading in the polls is Republican Tom Corbett, who has received $372,720 from the gas industry. He is the most concerned of all.

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