One thing that often gets lost in all the conversation about fracking is the thing that really lubricates the whole machine: The toxic mix of money and politics. One place where that’s been on full display has been Pennsylvania, which has been the epicenter of the fracking boom since the technology opened up large supplies of natural gas under the Marcellus Shale.
In 2010, right as the number of new rigs was exploding across the state, Pennsylvania elected a new governor, Republican Tom Corbett, who came with roughly $1 million in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry and who promised in his first major speech to make his northern state in “the Texas of the natural gas boom.” Many of the ramifications of Corbett’s cozy ties with Big Oil and Big Gas have been well known, including a push to allow fracking rigs on college campuses and a bitter fight to prevent the frackers from paying taxes as they do in every other major drilling state (although he did relent on a modest “impact fee.”)
But often the real impact of government being in bed with the oil-and-gas industry takes place below the radar screen. This is a stunning example of a state government bending over backwards to let a major campaign contributor play by different rules:
IT WAS JAN. 18, 2011 – just a day before Gov. Corbett took the oath of office – when, without warning, trucks started rolling one after another into a once-abandoned industrial site in the Susquehanna River town of Sunbury, Pa.
At the end of that day, stunned and angry neighbors counted 27 large dump trucks on their small residential street, filled with the debris from gas-drilling rigs in the Marcellus Shale. Some of the trucks were leaking liquids, said the neighbors, including Cora Campbell, who recalled that “it smelled like a combination of diesel fuel and dirt.”
For months, Campbell and others in the history-rich town of 10,000, an hour north of Harrisburg, and environmental activists pressed the new owner of the site, the logistics firm Moran Industries, and regulators from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), to find out what was happening at the property and how it could handle so much fracking waste without environmental permits.
But there was something else that Sunbury residents didn’t find out until long after DEP sided with Moran Industries: Its subsidiary’s contract with an interstate railroad, signed three months after the waste-transfer station opened, now meant that it was exempt from Pennsylvania permitting laws.
It turned out that the company’s owner, John Moran Jr., wasn’t just a major political donor who’d given more than $100,000 to Corbett’s gubernatorial campaign, but he also had gifted more than $2,400 for Corbett’s personal travel, including hosting the governor and his wife on a yacht off Rhode Island in July 2011. The trips weren’t revealed until last fall, in an amendment to an earlier Corbett ethics-disclosure form.
You don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes or even Ace Ventura, Pet Detective to see that there’s something fishy here. The story shows that state regulators required one of 2 things before the waste-handler opened for business: Either a permit, or an agreement with a railroad that would have given him an exemption. Instead, he bided his time until his crony became the governor, and started sending the trucks in.
It’s a stunning double-standard, but sadly it’s not that unusual, if more reporters would dig deeply enough, no pun intended. The fight for tougher safety standards on fracking may well be the big environmental battle of the next couple of years. But we’re not going to get anywhere unless we take the money out of the pipeline.
To read the Philadelphia Daily News article about Gov. Tom Corbett’s conflict of interest, please go to: http://www.philly.com/philly/business/homepage/20130115_Money__politics_and_pollution_in_fracking_country.html
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