A World Without Research

When times are economically demanding, the first tendency of regulators is to suggest cutting non-essential programs. Unfortunately, many of those ‘non-essentials’ include public services and research, which are pivotal to the progress of our nation. Mostly as a mental exercise, I’d like everyone to ask themselves where we would we be if we did not fund such research:

  • You would not be reading this article on the internet, as it was pioneered by those that developed the Large Hadron Collider.
  • The paths of hurricanes and tornadoes would be terribly difficult to predict.
  • One out of every ~nine babies worldwide would be claimed by smallpox.
  • Medical MRI technology would not exist – pioneered by a chemist and a physicist.

DCNR Changes

DCNR Lands & Active Permits

Located more close to home are Pennsylvania’s recent funding cuts on ecological projects. Those in power have claimed that their regulatory decisions regarding unconventional natural gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale layer are based on science. However, the funding for the Commonwealth’s Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) to provide data on the health of PA’s ecosystem is aggressively being cut by those same individuals. On January 18, 2012, NPR reported that documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania (among others) suggest that the funding for scientific endeavors within DCNR currently focusing on drilling-related issues is actively being slashed by the state. The agency’s wildlife research program has been cut by almost 70%, specifically impacting the projects dealing with understanding the impacts of drilling. The rationale for why some projects were cut and not others has not been provided, nor was the reason for failing to involve the conservation team in such funding decisions. Also recently, the director of DCNR’s citizens advisory committee was fired by the Corbett administration. The committee has oversight of the state’s parks and forests. These significant changes could significantly affect the accountability of Marcellus Shale gas drilling in PA’s forests.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has a major budget deficit to deal with, no doubt. However, in the face of financial crises compounded by overlapping priorities on a policy level, it is even more crucial that we use real evidence – science – to create policies and make decisions. How can we do that when we are cutting the very channels that provide us with the data? Without access to reliable data and information about how PA’s ecosystem is dealing with drilling, our policy-makers will find it more difficult to make well-informed decisions. Without programs that provide up-to-date and reliable impact data, we are doomed to repeat the mistakes that lead to today’s legacy pollution sites – for which tax-payers are now encumbered to remediate!

Read more about the DCNR cuts in NPR’s full article.

Cuts as Pace of Drilling Intensifies

Inadequate access to quality data is an issue that is only going to become more concerning as the pace of the shale gas industry intensifies. (There were 785 Marcellus wells drilled in 2009; 1,461 in 2010; and 1,920 in 2011.) Forty percent of PA’s state forests are already leased out for shale gas drilling, and there has also been some discussion about the likelihood of lifting the moratorium (ban) on further drilling. Learn more here.

As another point of reference regarding the scale of shale gas drilling in PA, below is a map of all of the Marcellus Shale wells drilled in the state as of 1-12-12 created with data from the PA DEP using

Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH is a doctorate student in the Environmental and Occupational Health department of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health and the Communications Specialist for She can be reached at:  |  412-648-8641

Violations Jan-Sept 2011 PA (EHS highlighted with red dots)

A discussion on regulation and safety

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – DrPH Student in Environmental & Occupational Health; Communications Specialist for

As natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region of our country moves forward, people in many states are debating over the best ways to regulate the natural gas industry. I’m not going to get into the impact fee discussion in this piece, although it is an obvious point of contention that needs addressed in PA immediately. Rather, I’d like to propose a way to manage the permitting and future development of the companies operating in this field.

Pipeline Safety

There are 2.5 million miles of pipelines in the U.S., the majority of which are for gas transmission and distribution. A recent 4-part series by the Philadelphia Inquirer brought to light the real and potential dangers of the gas pipeline system, which is being expanded in PA to handle the Marcellus gas destined for the market. The biggest concern highlighted in these articles in my opinion is the lack of oversight anywhere in the process – especially when our regulatory officials cannot even locate the pipelines. (Specific geographic locations of pipelines are often held close to the chest due to the perception that this information poses a risk to national security and infrastructure.)

Pipelines do fail, as demonstrated by the toxic liquid spills map below. This graphic was created by the New York Times, who in a earlier article discussed the lack of human and fiscal resources available to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration – noting that although the number of spills have declined, pipelines are still responsible for approximately 100 significant spills per year.

NYTs: U.S. Pipeline Incidents 1990 - June 2011

NEW YORK TIMES | Source: Department of Transportation, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

If you’d like to be able to find where pipelines are located (approximately) in your county, visit the U.S. DOT’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) website for Pipeline Safety Awareness. The site also provides you with data about pipeline incidents. In case you would rather not go diving through the raw data, below are some U.S. pipeline incident datasets and example maps from 2010 – Nov 2011 data that  Matt Kelso obtained from PHMSA:

  • PHMSA Hazardous Liquids Pipeline Incidents: Dataset | Map
  • PHMSA Gas Distribution Pipeline Incidents: Dataset | Map
  • PHMSA Gas Transmission Pipeline Incidents: Dataset | Map
(You can do a lot more with this data, such as filtering it by whether surface water remediation was necessary or by the type of contaminant that was released.)

Violations in PA

Violations Jan-Sept 2011 PA (EHS highlighted with red dots)

Violations Jan-Sept 2011 PA (EHS violations in red)

Another concern about natural gas drilling is the risk of environmental health and safety incidents occurring throughout the rest of the drilling process.1

The map to the left created using shows all of the violations that were issued to drillers from Jan-Sept. 2011 in Pennsylvania. The red dots are the violations that fall under the DEP’s loose category of Environmental Health and Safety (EHS).2

As you can see, EHS incidents do occur, but is that the whole story? Perhaps we should be asking ourselves, who exactly is responsible for these incidents – pipelines and the like? When you look more closely at the data the industry’s safety record becomes less monolithic than at first glance.

Focusing on the Bad Actors

The PR surrounding natural gas drilling is controversial at best. We have seen blanket statements about how safe – and dangerous – natural gas drilling and pipelines can be. We all must recognize that the answer lies somewhere in between. However, where is the perfect medium located, and how do we address the root of the problems that do arise?

One approach that is taken by some regulatory bodies such as OSHA is to focus on the bad actors. In two of his more recent posts, FracTracker’s Matt Kelso analyzed the ‘bad actors’ that exist within the violations issued in PA. While this is certainly not an easy or straightforward task, he was able to identify operators with the highest and lowest violations per well drilled, as well as trends between 2010 and 2011. Check out these analyses here: Part 1 |  Part 2.

Bad actors are not good for the industry’s PR or the Commonwealth’s residents. If the agencies responsible for issuing drilling permits quantitatively began to take violation trends into account, this would allow the safer drillers to continue operating, while limiting those with a less than appealing track record.

1 One of the great changes made by the PA Department of Environmental Protection in the last 2 years has been the transfer from the paper record system for keeping track of the violations they issue to a digital version that allows people access to the comprehensive, raw data. This is certainly also something that should be on NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation radar prior to issuing its first permit for high volume hydraulic fracturing.

2 EHS violations are a loose category because often times when we sift through the data we will find administrative oversights like paperwork mislabeled as EHS, and more serious spills and fires mislabeled as administrative.

Energy and the Environment: Preventing and Resolving Conflicts

Citizen David Tames Gas Goliaths on the Marcellus Shale Stage: Citizen Action as a Form of Dispute Prevention in the Internet Age

A NY colleague of ours recently published an article on the issue of natural gas drilling and public engagement in New York State. The potential for environmental and public health issues were discussed in great detail for those who are interested in becoming more versed on the topic. (FracTracker was mentioned as a tool for dispute prevention, so that is exciting for us, too!)

Article Excerpt

“Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.” This could soon become the lament of millions of people who derive their drinking water from sources located near the latest natural gas boom site in the East, known as the “Marcellus Shale” region. Drilling is underway in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but not yet in New York. The focus here is New York.

Horizontal hydraulic fracturing holds promise for accessing shale gas. But with the current state of the industry practices, it also promises certain devastation to the environment and human health unless all local, state, and federal government officials immediately begin to take seriously the already documented risks associated with this unconventional drilling method. Every citizen has an interest in protecting our natural resources, water included. In this real life drama, David is played by U.S. citizens and Goliath is played by the rich and powerful oil and gas industry. Members of the oil and gas industry and land-owning citizens seeking to lease their property for gas extraction prefer the circumscribed definition of the term hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which refers only to the actual gas drilling. Environmental groups and individuals advocating for conservation of natural resources opt for a broad interpretation of the term, reasoning that every step in the hydraulic gas drilling process is worthy of attention since adverse impacts can and do result from steps before and after the actual drilling occurs. The future environmental and human …

Published in the Spring, 2011 edition of Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution. 373. by Elisabeth N. Radow

If you have a LexisNexis account, you can view the entire article online.

Oil and Gas Data Presentation

Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Violation, Inspection, & Enforcement Data on

On Thursday, August 11th, Matt Kelso spoke to a group of people invited by EARTHWORKS to discuss how well PA is or could enforce natural gas drilling regulations. Check out his presentation (PDF).

By Matt Kelso, Data Manager, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, Environmental and Occupational Health department, University of Pittsburgh, Graduate School of Public Health

Comparing & Contrasting Extractive Industry Sectors in Ghana & the US

By Deanna Bitetti (Common Cause) and Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH (CHEC)

In the quiet of the morning the group we have travelled to Ghana with using a grant from the US Department of State to study extractive industries find ourselves swapping stories – wistfully thinking of American life back home. We find ourselves constantly comparing and contrasting the political environment in which public policy around extractive industries are crafted in both nations. Scratch beneath the surface and you will find that Ghana and the US are not that different after all.

The pernicious influence of special interest money permeates throughout American political culture just as it does in Ghana; compulsory Integration models in the states have allowed for mineral rights to be taken from American citizens, and confusion over the leasing of mineral rights for natural gas extraction has led to uprooted communities. Environmental degradation and costs to local communities have been paramount in both the US and Ghana. These two nations separated by the Atlantic are struggling to balance new extractive industries as an engine for economic growth and protecting communities from the pitfalls associated with the “resource curse.” As both nations forge ahead in developing their oil and gas sectors, how they manage the risk associated with natural gas development will ultimately define how the citizenry thinks about the role of government and government institutions.

Below is a short comparison of some key aspects affecting constituencies in the US and Ghana.

Special Interest Influence

During a recent discussion with a local royal chief in a small village I am reminded that corporate influence is not localized to any specific nation. Here, a gold mining company publicly presents the tribal leaders of a village with keys to two Land Rovers. In America, special interest money floods campaign coffers, exceedingly so in the wake of Citizen United. According to Open Secrets individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates since 1990. From 2010-2011 Exxon Mobil and The Koch Brothers, one of the largest oil and gas conglomerates in the US, spent $384,030 and $318,800 respectively on campaign donations on both sides of the partisan divide to influence environmental legislation aimed at regulating the oil and gas sector. In Pennsylvania, Common Cause’s has tracked the significant campaign cash contributions that have flooded campaign coffers, and in New York our recent report “Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets,” highlighted the large amounts industry has spent to lobby our elected officials.

Public Benefits for Public Good

In Ghana only 5% of royalties paid by the extractive industry sector is paid to the State. Out of that 80% of the money goes into the government’s general fund, with only 9% trickling down to effected communities. In the US, Congress has historically rewarded energy companies and those involved in the extractive industry sector with tax breaks, without tangible realization of positive benefits to communities. Nearly two-thirds of US corporations don’t pay any income taxes. According to a study from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office, 83 of the top 100 publicly traded corporations that operate in the US exploit corporate tax havens. Since 2009, America’s most profitable companies, such as ExxonMobil, General Electric, Bank of America and Citigroup, all paid a grand total of $0 in federal income taxes. Even as we write this, Congress is considering offering major subsidies to promote natural gas extraction methods and providing major tax incentives to the industry, speeding up the timeline for extraction and feeding the natural gas boom (and possibly bust) cycle.

Mineral Rights and Extraction

At the heart of the debate over natural gas extraction in the US is the right of landowners to either retain their land or sign leases with companies with the hope of negotiating lucrative contracts for their mineral rights. In Ghana, Article 257 of the Constitution states that public lands and public property are “vested in the President on the behalf of, and in trust for, the people of Ghana.” In essence, the state has claims to mineral rights, not the individual. On the surface the situation in Ghana appears anathema to American values. Forced resettlement programs of thousands of fisherman, farmers and landowners offends our notion of private property and ownership as inviolate. Yet areas in New York and Pennsylvania have allowed for Compulsory Integration where companies were granted the right to drill on lands for which they did not hold leases. Some residents that may own the surface rights but not the mineral rights experience the effects of a “split estate.” Additionally, population displacement often occurs near areas of heavy drilling either because of fear of health effects, noise or pollution, or due to harassment by companies. The important benefits and drawbacks that result from personal ownership of mineral rights must be considered seriously. Further, neither the United States or Ghana require companies to disclose the exact composition of the chemical mixtures used in the process, shrouding it in a cloud of secrecy from the public.

Externalities of Natural Gas Development

In Ghana, as farmland is turned over to industry to pave the way for rapid development, food productivity has begun decreasing – causing food and commodity prices to rise. Housing prices have been steadily increasing as foreigners flock to the areas surrounding the Jubilee oil field, causing a surge in demand for those residences. Prostitution and crime has been on the rise, as well. Even smoking has increased as foreigners bring with them new social norms. In the US we have seen similar externalities imposed on host communities by the extractive industry sector. In Pennsylvania we have already seen the rise in housing shortages due to workers being brought in from out of state, traffic incidences, and roadway degradation. Air quality concerns, drinking water contamination, and stress-related health effects are being documented. Both nations lack clear and updated standards for hazardous waste removal of drilling fluid or drill cuttings. Each country will have to address new pressures placed on transportation infrastructure, including increasing maintenance costs as new roads are created and old roads need constant repair to handle the increase in heavy truck traffic.

Public Health Issues

Residential and operational waste – regardless of its country of origin – is a common postcard to receive from the presence of extractive industries. Improperly handled waste contributes to a multitude of public health issues, such as tainted drinking water, disease transmission, air pollution, and threats to the food supply. One of the differences between Ghana and the U.S. lies in the awareness of where our waste goes. Americans are physically separated from the sources and end products of our distracted commercial lives. Trash is collected by a contractor and taken to dump sites, incinerators, or overseas. Ghanaians face their (and others’) waste on the country’s busy sidewalks, in open sewers, and floating in their magnificent waterways. They witness the neocolonial exploitation of their local resources for the imbalanced consumption and financial gain of other countries. While our processes for extraction and waste disposal differ somewhat, we share a common problem – how to reduce our demand on the entire cycle. Many of the earth’s resources are finite and severely threatened, and so sustainability must be the prescription for healthy development.


This list is not exhaustive, nor it is it meant to be. To move toward a best-practices model for developing extractive industry sectors and managing the high risks associated with doing so means paying close attention to the pace and scope of development, as well as attempting to ameliorate negative externalities imposed on communities. This must include mechanisms for proper oversight and regulation, sustainable planning and development, enhanced civic societal input at the decision- making table, and realistic expectations about the financial promises of oil and gas. In nations such as Ghana, managing these revenues will require more transparency and better management to ensure that revenues do not create large wealth distribution imbalances. In the US, ensuring that industry and government do not form cozy relationships that undermine independent oversight regimes is a major concern.

Deanna Bitetti is the Associate Director of Common Cause/NY. Samantha Malone is the Communications Specialist at the Center for Environmental Healthy Environments and Communities and a doctorate student in the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. They are currently in Ghana as part of a State Department funded research trip on resource extraction hosted by Duquesne University (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) and the University of Ghana (Legon, Ghana).