What the frack?! Pittsburgh bans gas drilling, corporate impunity


Yes! magazine reports that Pittsburgh, Penn., has passed an ordinance that bans the practice known as "hydraulic fracturing" — or, colloquially, "fracking" — in which water, sand, and toxic chemicals are forced into underground shale fissures under great pressure in order to recover deposits of natural gas that are held within the rock.


The practice results in the pollution of the underground water table, as well as nearby rivers and streams in the areas where the drilling takes place, while releasing cancerous benzene and uranium that had been sequestered in the shale. Fracking has become wide-spread in areas of the northeastern U.S., ranging from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio and West Virginia, as well as broad swathes of central Canada.


Numerous home videos and documentary films have demonstrated toxic and flammable gases bubbling to the surface in water near people's homes, as well as coming through their faucets and toilets — leading to scenes in which people are able to literally ignite water (or, actually, the gas traveling through the plumbing along with the water).


Fracking companies have been scouring the Northeast for places to drill, often signing up home- and property-owners who have little information about fracking's effects on the environment or their quality of life. (The drilling equipment is usually large and often very noisy, and is sometimes run at night using very bright lights. The area around the drilling area is generally devastated by the equipment, ongoing operations, and the traffic to and from them.)


But when individual homeowners, neighborhoods, and even whole communities have tried to assert the local authority to regulate the practice or ban it altogether, drilling companies have countered by claiming that only the state can regulate commerce (a tactic often paralleled at the federal level, when states try to regulate or ban dangerous or anti-social practices.) As the article reports:

During the months leading up to today’s vote, [Pittsburgh City Councilmember Doug] Shields passionately advocated for the ordinance, saying that the city is “not a colony of the state, and will not sit quietly by as our city gets drilled.” He sees this fight as about far more than drilling, saying “It’s about our authority as a community to decide, not corporations deciding for us.”


Shields drafted the ordinance with the help of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), a nation non-profit organization that seeks to curb corporate power by asserting the right of citizens in local municipalities to pass laws to determine what companies can do within their jurisdictions — as a means to off-set corporate power at the state level.


The article notes that Pennsylvania officials were "recently found to be paying thousands of dollars to a private contractor to investigate citizens [who were] advocating against drilling", while drilling companies had contributed "hundreds of thousands" of dollars to help "elect candidates who will ensure that drilling proceeds without interference from citizens ..."


"They’ve been successful in exempting natural gas drilling and fracking from federal regulations", the article says, "and they’ve put in place state laws pre-empting municipalities from taking any steps to reign in the industry." To counter those anti-democratic efforts, the article observes that:

Provisions in the ordinance eliminate corporate “personhood” rights within the city for corporations seeking to drill, and remove the ability of corporations to wield the 'Commerce' and 'Contracts' clauses of the U.S. Constitution to over-ride community decisionmaking.


The article concludes by noting that the ordinance must still be signed into law by Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, and that if and when he does, the fracking companies will probably take legal action (most likely at the state level) to over-turn it.


UPDATE: On March 3, 2011, the Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, town council joined Pittsburgh in passing a "Community Bill of Rights" that included a moratorium on fracking, and restrictions on the ability of corporations to subvert local citizen democracy. In noting the passage of the ordinance, CELDF Projects Director Ben Price observed that "We don’t have a gas drilling problem. We have a democracy problem".