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Fracking and the Moral Arc of the Universe

In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The moral arc of the universe bends towards justice.”

To the hundreds of families on the list of those harmed in Pennsylvania fracking country, these words do not ring true. With a legislative and executive branch virtually owned by the gas companies, the moral arc seemed to be on a path toward injustice.

I write here both as a filmmaker, and as a business man that comes from a progas/profracking belief.  Even today, I am not anti fracking, just pro-moratorium.  My company had spent thousands of dollars converting a plant we owned to gas, buying into the gas companies’ propaganda that fracked gas was a cleaner burning fuel.  It was not until three years ago when I began to research this issue that I realized the totality of the environmental consequences that the Supreme Court has alluded to.

The state Supreme Court redirected that path towards justice when it ruled in its landmark decision that portions of Act 13 are unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the Environmental Rights Amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution.  Notably, the Court stated, “As the citizens illustrate, development of the natural gas industry in the Commonwealth unquestionably has and will have a lasting, and undeniably detrimental, impact on the quality of these core aspects [life, health, and liberty, ): surface and ground water, ambient air, etc.] of Pennsylvania’s environment, which are part of the public trust.” [Opinion at p.117.]

Additionally, Chief Justice Ron Castille, a Republican who wrote the majority opinion, stated,, “By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.” [Opinion at p.118.] That the Supreme Court recognized the Constitutional right is extraordinary .

Our team has worked several years on Groundswell Rising, a film examining the environmental issues surrounding fracking that the Supreme Court expressed concern about.  It is vindicating for us and the hundreds of environmental groups concerned about this issue to finally be heard after being ignored by the legislative and executive branches of our state government.

The Corbett administration has been purchased by the gas companies, a seamless merger between industry and government.  We were not confident that the Supreme Court would  step up to the plate. It did, and Justices Castille, Todd, McCaffrey, and Baer  deserve your commendations. While this is a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, it elevates the environmental rights movement at a national level.

While I celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision, the issue is really how did this intrusive legislation abdicating local zoning to the gas industry ever get passed?  We got here when the Corbett administration was bought by the gas companies.  Common Cause/Pa. did an outstanding study, “Deep Drilling ,Deep Pockets” ( www.commoncause.org), in which it laid out the pervasive influence of the gas companies on Pennsylvania legislation.  Corbett got nearly $1,100,000 from the gas companies for his gubernatorial race, and more than $1.8 million in all of his races. Those legislators who supported gas company positions received about four times the money from the gas companies that their opponents did. Without that money contaminating the process, there is no way that Act 13 would have passed.

If there was any lingering doubt about how deep money has contaminated our government, the recent news is that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is suing to set aside this decision. Reached for reaction to the filing, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, who was vocal in his opposition to Act 13, said:

“It’s unconscionable that the state of Pennsylvania is looking at a $1.4 billion deficit, yet Gov. Tom Corbett is wasting even more taxpayer dollars in a last-ditch desperation stunt to protect his wealthy donors in the shale industry. It’s mind-boggling to me that the DEP is taking such extraordinary steps to advocate for less environmental and constitutional protections.”

This action erases any remaining hope that the DEP believes in protecting the environment.

Gas money contaminates every level of our government.  The gas companies with the leadership of Vice President Cheney managed to get the Halliburton loophole through which exempted the gas industry from The Clean water Act, Safe Drinking water Act, and several other hard fought pieces of legislation—the only industry ever to be exempted from all of these acts.  That allowed the gas companies to inject toxic chemicals into the wells to extract gas. Now Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and others have introduced legislation –The Frac Act, and the Breathe Act to undo some of that damage. But it is doubtful there will be movement on these bills because of oil/gas company influence. Citizens  must ask if sacrificing public health and the environment—numerous scientific studies show that is the case—is worth the temporary economic benefits that the cheerleaders of Harrisburg are promoting.

Mark Lichty, executive producer, “Groundswell Rising” E Stroudsburg, Pa.

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