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Running on Fumes

GOP intransigence pollutes political, natural environment



Want to know how out-of-control Pennsylvania's natural-gas industry is? Even the most ambitious proposal to curb "fracking," a measure proposed by state Sen. Jim Ferlo, would allow the number of active wells to increase by nearly 100 percent.

Which just goes to show: Even for progressive champions, it's hard to protect the environment when you're fighting against a toxic political climate.

Ferlo's Senate Bill 1100 would create a Well Drilling Study Commission to review the environmental dangers of "fracking," a drilling technique that releases gas from rock deposits by injecting chemicals underground at high pressure. The state would issue no further drilling permits until the commission reported on those dangers and made recommendations.

The goal, Ferlo explained to reporters in a conference call last month, would be to "let science be our guide, and put public-health protection first." 

Adam Gerber, the Philadelphia field director of advocacy group PennEnvironment, agreed, calling the measure "probably the best chance Pennsylvania has to halt the dangerous expansion of fracking."

Except fracking will expand even with Ferlo's bill. The measure would "grandfather in" wells for which drilling permits have been issued, even if they haven't been dug yet. Once granted, Ferlo explained, a permit confers a "legal right that's equivalent to a contract," and the state cannot rescind it.  

How many Marcellus Shale wells have permits that could be grandfathered in? About 7,000, Ferlo said — almost the same number of wells currently in operation. 

So even if the legislature passed Ferlo's bill and Gov. Tom Corbett signed it next week, we could see twice as many wells a few years from now as we do today. 

The fact that so many permits have been issued is not Ferlo's fault. It's largely the fault of Harrisburg Republicans who have already prostituted themselves, and much of the state, to drillers. And while Ferlo voiced hopes that his measure would garner bipartisan support, the Republican response was predictable. 

"It's alarming that extreme liberals like Jim Ferlo and Allyson Schwartz will not hesitate to crush Pennsylvanians to cater to the extreme left-wing of their party," said state Republican Committee Chair Rob Gleason in a statement.

Gleason's statement raises some questions. The first is ... Allyson who?  Schwartz, a Philadelphia-area Congresswoman, has nothing to do with Ferlo's proposal. (She favors levying a tax on drilling, not trying to suspend it.) Gleason is simply trying to link her name to the phrase "extreme left-wing" anywhere he can, because she's a leading Democratic contender to challenge Corbett's 2014 re-election bid.

Which raises another question: If Ferlo's bill is merely a sop to "the extreme left-wing," then how come a Muhlenberg College poll this May showed 58 percent of residents support a moratorium? Are there that many lefties in Pennsylvania? And if so, shouldn't I be getting more fan mail?

But Republicans aren't actually very interested in what most of us think. In Harrisburg and in Washington, D.C., the GOP is bent on ignoring the voters they can't reach, and subverting the institutions they can't control. Most people favor keeping the federal government open, and you can see where that got us.

On the surface, it might seem crazy for a political party to deliberately thwart the will of voters. But as a Philadelphia Republican once told muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, the GOP has long known that "[P]ublic despair is possible and that [it] is good politics." Flaunting the public's will, showing open contempt from the very platform they put you on, is as likely to induce paralysis as outrage. 

Ferlo, a veteran of many social-justice campaigns, acknowledges the challenge. "Nothing happens without a movement," he told reporters, and SB1100 could be a cause for practicing the kind of "in-your-face" advocacy that changes politics.

Not everyone thinks SB1100 is the best flag to rally around. Given Republican opposition, some environmentalists privately tell me, SB1100 seems to ask supporters to deliver the impossible, while offering a relative pittance in return. 

But if nothing else, Ferlo's bill has already demonstrated the scope of what we're up against. It's not just the threat of leaking gas fumes. It's that for the past several years, we've had too many politicians running around with open flames.  

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