Journalism in the Public Interest

In Symbolic Move, Philadelphia Calls for Gas Drilling Ban

Philadelphia officials recommended holding off on drilling in the watershed that provides the city’s drinking water until an EPA fracking study is finished. The city is the latest of several local governments to call for drilling bans.


Philadelphia became the latest city calling for at least a temporary ban on new wells in the watershed that serves the city's taps. (Fordan/Flickr)

As the federal government continues to study a controversial gas drilling technique and the states tinker with their own regulations, some cities and towns are trying to halt local drilling. Philadelphia became the latest to do that on Thursday, when city officials called for at least a temporary ban on new wells in the watershed that serves the city's taps.

The request was part of a set of recommendations in a report approved by the city council asking federal and state authorities to tighten drilling regulations. The report also urges the city-owned utility to avoid buying gas that comes from the Marcellus Shale, the layer of rock that stretches under much of Pennsylvania and is considered one of the world's largest gas fields.

But the vote was largely symbolic. The utility doesn't buy any Marcellus Shale gas and has no plans to -- and new drilling in the Delaware River Basin is already on hold. The idea was to send a message, said Michelle Wilson, a spokeswoman for Curtis Jones, Jr., the councilman who sponsored the report.

"Philadelphia is a major city and we're hoping that behind this push, that we can use it for leverage," Wilson said.

The report cites the uncertainty around the environmental and economic impact of hydraulic fracturing—in which drillers use millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals to extract gas—to argue for a cautious approach to drilling. The Delaware River Basin Commission, the interstate authority that must authorize drilling permits in the watershed, has already suspended approving new wells until it adopts a set of regulations covering gas drilling. That process will take months, said a spokeswoman for the commission. The city council asked that the ban be extended until an EPA study of hydraulic fracturing is completed, which isn't expected until next year.

With the vote, Philadelphia joined New York City and Pittsburgh, as well as a number of smaller towns in the northeast and Texas, in trying to influence where and how the gas industry drills its wells.

In November of 2010 Pittsburgh became the first Pennsylvania city to ban drilling within its boundaries. The ordinance was written by an advocacy group called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which is pushing similar laws in municipalities throughout the Marcellus Shale region, including one in Maryland. Ben Price, who is organizing the effort for the defense fund, said the ordinances aim to protect residents' rights to clean air and clean water. He said cities and towns are simply stepping in where state governments refuse to.

But there's some question as to whether the outright bans by Pennsylvania municipalities are legal or whether state law supersedes them, said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the gas industry group the Marcellus Shale Coalition. Some towns have reportedly backed off proposing bans for fear of attracting costly lawsuits.

Windle said the local efforts are based on misinformation and will hurt economic growth.

"I think that just underscores what a huge job we have to do in better educating folks across the spectrum," he said.

While their direct impact on drilling is arguable, the various initiatives signal rising awareness and concern about drilling for natural gas, said Amy Mall, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.

"Local elected officials are hearing the concern from their communities and that's a good thing," she said. "I think it reflects that we need to look at this industry nationally."

New York City officials issued their own call for a ban on drilling in the city's watershed in December 2009. As with Philadelphia, drilling there is already on hold until a state environmental impact study is finished. Wilson said that Philadelphia officials have been working with their peers in Pittsburgh and New York to try to coordinate their efforts against drilling.

Before the Philadelphia vote, there was some confusion about whether the city council could direct the utility company's gas purchases. State law requires utilities to seek the cheapest gas, which for now means a long-term contract for fuel coming mostly from the Gulf of Mexico. Initially, the council wanted to ban purchases of Marcellus gas, should they become the cheapest option. That language was softened to urge the utility to consider environmental concerns as well as price and to try to avoid Marcellus gas.

Kudos to the City of Philadelphia for making a statement that their citizens are more important than the interests of the gas & oil industry.  How sad that small municipalities fear the threat(s) of lawsuits by this industry.  The big, bad gas and oil BULLY must be stopped.

Somewhere in the Atlantic ocean, oil tankers are steaming towards the US, while hundreds of millions of dollars of our money is transferred to the royal Saudi Arabian bank accounts because petty obstructionists block development of native energy sources in this country.

Somewhere in the desert sands of Kuwait and Iraq, the bones of American kids lie bleaching in the sun, having died so you can drive to work.

All hail the new religion:  Environmentalism!  Yay!

Why does the US government have to lie to it’s people about WMDs to get them keen for a war that is really about oil? Because the average american has a conscious and would never agree to kill others so that they “can drive to work”. The morality of that choice is obvious to a 4 year old. 

My uncle is a farmer with cancer, his groundwater was contaminated by the numerous oil wells on his land. There are hundreds of ‘petty obstructionists’ just like him.

This doesn’t have to do with some new age religion of environmentalism it has to do with a question as old as time its self. What is the value of human life? and do we want the truth from our governments or can we accept being lied to.

Fear rules the day.  Don’t do ‘X’ for fear that ‘y’ may happen.  My stepfather died of pancreatic cancer.  He lived in Connecticut.  Should Connecticut be outlawed?  There’s no connection!

This country is going down the toilet due to terrible government mismanagement and the voters that allow it, and worse, endorse it.

I’ll tell you the value of human life:  zero… after this country goes the way of the Weimar Republic- which it will if we continue to send our blood and treasure to the Middle East instead of developing our own resources.

Actually opinion polls consistently show that the majority of voters disagree with what decisions that politicions make e.g. maintaining the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. There is literally no one to vote for if you don’t want to fight these wars. It’s not an option.

‘Don’t do x for fear that y may happen’ is not an illogical statement form. It can be illogical depending on what ‘x’ and ‘y’ are. I wish someone had said that statement in the beginning of the Iraq war ‘Don’t go to war in Iraq for fear that over a million people may lose their lives for nothing but oil’

These days its more like ‘Do X for fear that y may happen’. What happens when America’s water supply is contaminated and there is a desperate need for fresh water, these new conflicts will make oil wars look like Sunday picnics?

Do you work for a gas company or what? Why do you have such a hard on for poisoning our water table?

My comment from yesterday didn’t post, did I violate a rule? too long? My own error?  ????????

I was hoping and praying that the unstudied practice of fracking would get the publicity and attention it deserves, especially from local jurisdictions who have to live with the consequences.

Contrary to earlier posts, I would hardly consider this as “just” an environmental issue.  This is at minimum a quality of life issue for those who are affected by fracking, which could include nearly everyone in the US (and given the geological structure underlying the US and the widespread use of fracking)—including you, Rick.  I encourage you to learn more about the issue before rushing to judgment.

Wow, I give up.  People have made up their minds based on fantasy and misplaced priorities and there’s no changin ‘em.  No wonder Obama is president and we’re going to hell in an environmentally sensitive, handcrafted basket… made with only the purest water.

PS.  No animals were harmed in the making of this basket.

Goodbye, America!  You’re doomed.

bet all change your minds when gas is $450 a gallon. how quickly you dumb -sses forget. you tree huggers please stay in philphilelphia where you belong, ass hole to elbo. YOU CAN’T EVEN PLOW YOUR STREETS BUT YOU WANT TO TELL SOMEONE ELSE WHAT THEY CAN OR CAN’T DO.

Right and Philadelphia a city where 1/3 of the population collects welfare is hindering jobs in other parts of the state with this symbolic BS.  Just like the trans fat ban and the city’s refusal to enforce immigration laws the council members are trying to detract from their failure to put the city back to work, reduce crime and run efficiently without raising taxes.  Smoke and mirrors hey they are doing something even if it means nothing in the long run about the state of the city

Whoa!  Maybe America isn’t doomed after all!

Surprise!  The last two comments acknowledge the harsh realities we face, rather than the delusions with which you hypocritical liberals decorate Mamby-Pambyland

And here I thought I was the only one left with any sense.  Cliff and Cym “get it” !  Congrats!

Well… gotta go!  I’m late for a… Tea Party!

Cliff, Cym and Rick:

Your posts betray your state of mind and your lack of knowledge of natural gas drilling practices, Philadelphia residents, and the basics of political economic theory and practice, not to mention your lack of reading comprehension of ProPublica’s work. (Have you even ready ANY of their articles?)

Obviously you intend only to sow seeds of anger.  Hence, it’s a waste of my time to continue this discussion.  I only advise you to read ProPublica’s investigative journalism, which is top notch and continues to excel in quality and recognition.

It’s your loss if you’d rather stagnate within your own mind.

before thinking that the fracking will save us from higher gas prices check with the company s extracting this gas, you will probably found that the extracted gas is being sold and used outside of the US and remember water cannot be replaced.  Each well uses 5 million gallons of water, only 20 percent is reusable and none of which is potable (drinkable)

I would like to thank the Phila City Govm’t (my city) for taking this symbolic position on gas drilling. We (the public, and public servants) and the gas industry have a lot to learn about how to drill as safely as possible to minimize the kind of human and environmental costs we have so routinely seen in our earlier efforts, such as coal mining and the painful example of off-shore drilling. The gas industry has a substantial head-start on structuring the politics of drilling to suit profits at the peril of other essential resources: land and water quality, and human and creature health.This has been facilitated by our representatives in government. To wit, then VP Cheney, in secret energy talks, championed the exemption of the gas industry, for which Haliburton provides the undisclosed fracking chemicals, from the Clean Water Act requirements. So any effort by elected officials to demonstrate concern for balancing our need for energy with sensible, thoughtful science is welcome. Without this we are without representation, and while we may all depend to varying degrees on this industry’s product, it is not necessary or at all wise to wholesale entrust them with our land and water. We can both reduce our energy dependence and our impact. Efforts to resist usual gas drilling practices have led to original thinking and better practices. When we say no to foreign oil AND no to destructive US energy production we give birth to to the mother of invention. And we live up to the absolute best of what the USA can do: use democratic efforts and can-do ingenuity to solve problems together.

Dear Hannah,

    Well said.  I would think that in this day and age the gas drillers would (hopefully soon) devise non-toxic, biodegradable substances to enhance their fracking fluids, thereby eliminating the need for the use of “objectionable” (my quotes) chemicals.  Then you’d think everybody would be happy… but probably NOT!
    There’s still plenty o’ environmental stuff to bitch about:  the unsightly wells blockin’ up the scenery, the noise, the yay-hoo workers imported from Texas lookin’ at are (sic) wimmen.  An’ doan fergit th’ disrupshin o’ the courtship rituals o’ dem woodchucks over yonder.
    [Sorry about the vernacular deterioration… that’s so the boneheads in Philly can understand the gist of this open letter to you]
    Anyway, thanks for joining the discussion!


PS The Clean Water exemption for drilling wasn’t a sneaky move by Haliburton and its former employee trying to pull a fast one on the public.  It was exempted because thinking folks recognized that a bureaucratic monster had been created in the form of the EPA and that subjecting the industry to EPA red tape and ridiculous regulations would result in NO gas…. a critically necessary resource.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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