Despite Josh Fox having real roots in Pennsylvania, and though normally I root for all things Pennsylvanian, I am not pulling for Gasland to win an Oscar for Best Documentary.
I gave Josh an extended interview when I was the Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection that he heavily edited to include in the film. As Mom says: "You got to love the super close-ups of your darling face."
While treating my face fairly, the film presents a selective, distorted view of gas drilling and the energy choices America faces today. If Gasland were about the airline industry, every flight would crash and all airlines would be irresponsible. In Gasland, the gas industry is unsafe from beginning to end and is one unending environmental nightmare with no benefits.
Gasland seeks to inflame public opinion to shutdown the natural gas industry and is effective. In pursuing this goal, Gasland treats cavalierly facts both by omitting important ones and getting wrong others.
As just one example, Gasland wrongly says the budget for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was cut by 25% and that hundreds lost their jobs in 2009. That was a useful mistake for Gasland to make, because it builds falsely the argument that natural gas drilling is not regulated.
In fact, more than 70% of the DEP budget in 2009 came from either federal funds that were stable or increasing or from fees/fines that were stable or increasing as well. The budget cuts were restricted to the 30% of the total budget that came from state taxpayers and amounted to a total of 9%, a far cry from the 25% total budget cut Gasland falsely claims.
When the Lehman Brothers collapse on September 15, 2008 led to a near depression and a decline in state tax revenues, I began a push to increase fees by $50 million to help meet or expand DEP's vital permitting and enforcement duties.
And what was the first fee that Governor Rendell and I raised after I became Secretary on September 2nd, 2008? The fee for applying for a gas drilling permit.
The drilling application fee in 2009 jumped to as much as $5,000 to $10,000 per application for Marcellus wells from a ridiculously low $100 that had been set in 1984 and never raised.
Revenues from application fees increased from less than $1 million per year to more than $10 million per year. All that revenue went to more than doubling the size of the gas drilling oversight staff. Additional gas staff were hired in 2009 and again in 2010, increasing the number of state employees that solely regulated the gas industry from 88 to 202.
You will not find any mention in Gasland of the drilling fee increase or the hiring of more gas regulatory staff.
The 9% budget cut did require laying off 97 (not hundreds as Gasland suggests) state employees in December 2009, and for each one of those workers the lay-off notice was a personal and family crisis.
But none of the 97 positions were in the gas oversight staff. None were inspectors or had enforcement duties in any programs, because I directed that enforcement duties in the entire agency were immune from budget cuts. DEP's workforce temporarily declined from 2,830 to 2,727 positions but returned to the pre-layoff number starting in the July 1, 2010 budget.
You will also not find any mention in Gasland of the 4 new, strengthening regulatory packages--water withdrawal policy, wastewater disposal rule, 150 foot buffer for High Quality streams rule, and gas well drilling standards rule--that were in process as early as 2008 at my direction and completed by 2010.
Each of these rules greatly increased the strength of rules governing gas drilling and the protections of our water. For example the drilling wastewater rule that went into effect on August 2010 and was used in permits during 2009 required any new drilling wastewater treatment plant or any existing drilling wastewater treatment plant that expanded to fully treat drilling wastewater, including for Total Dissolved Solids (salts) to the Safe Drinking Water Standard, prior to discharge. Existing plants were conditionally allowed to continue operating as long as the receiving streams had water quality levels below 75% of the Safe Drinking Water Act's 500 mg/liter standard. This rule stopped Pennsylvania's decades-long practice of allowing unlimited amounts of drilling wastewater untreated for TDS to be discharged to rivers and streams.
In response to the draft drilling wastewater regulation that was issued in 2009, the drilling industry developed technology that allowed it to reuse or recycle drilling wastewater. By 2010 approximately 70% or higher of drilling wastewater that returned to the surface was being recycled by the industry.
You will find none of that regulatory development in Gasland.
Nor will you find in Gasland any mention of the1400 violations to industry that DEP staff issued from January 1, 2008 to June 30, 2010.
Nor will you find the October 2008 DEP orders to municipal sewage treatment plants on the Mon River and elsewhere that were taking drilling waste without DEP permission to cut by 95% their drilling waste volumes.
Nor will you find any mention of the orders to stop drilling or to stop fracking or to pay to clean up spills or leaks. Nor will you find any mention of orders to plug gas wells and spend millions repairing wells.
And you won't find any mention in Gasland of the DEP and state police random stops of gas drilling trucking traffic that put as many as 40% of the drilling trucks out of service.
All these actions are true but inconvenient to the Gasland narrative that gas drilling in Pennsylvania is not regulated so they don't make it into the film.
But perhaps the biggest of Gasland's many problems is that it does not discuss the alternatives to natural gas. If not natural gas, then what?
The reality today is that only more coal and oil, both of which are dirtier than natural gas, could replace the 24% of America's electricity made from natural gas and the 51% of homes heating with natural gas. Since coal and oil pollute more in their production and combustion, using more natural gas to replace them decreases mercury, soot, smog, and heat trapping pollution. That is true for at least the next 10 years.
Consider what the past and current use of coal and oil has wrought.
Gasland does not show the 5,000 miles of streams in Pennsylvania polluted by acid mine drainage or the 180,000 acres of abandoned mine land that are being slowly reclaimed at great expense.
Gasland does not show mountain top removal coal mining or any of the 500 mountain tops already removed and 1200 miles of streams buried.
Gasland does not show the soot, smog, and mercury pollution coming right now from the one-third of USA coal plants that are more than 40 years old and operating with few or no pollution controls.
Gasland does not discuss the oil spills that have damaged ecosystems around the world Just one out-of-control oil well in the Gulf devastated it. No gas well could do such damage.
Gasland does not tell viewers that one-out-of-six American women have elevated levels of mercury so that their babies would have lower IQ, and that the mercury in their bodies comes from burning coal.
Gasland does not tell viewers natural gas has no mercury emissions, or natural gas creates less soot or smog than coal or oil that kills or sickens hundreds of thousands of Americans every year.
Gasland does not tell viewers that burning coal emits more heat trapping pollution that is raising temperatures slowly but surely around the world than natural gas does
America does not run on clean fuels today but instead on mainly coal and oil. Natural gas is cleaner than coal or oil and can quickly replace large amounts of both for electricity generation, heating, and transportation. America should be doing that for our economy, national security, and environment.
Of course, natural gas has impacts and is not the full, only, or ultimate solution. It must be strongly regulated, rules enforced, and rules strengthened further if needed.
And we must accelerate deployment of even cleaner technologies like wind, solar, and others. More must be invested in energy conservation, the cleanest and cheapest option.
Yet those who say renewables could replace here and now gas, coal, and/or oil are unfortunately wrong, totally wrong (I will address further this point in a separate post). I say that as someone who has led the charge for more wind, solar, energy conservation in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania now has 20 wind farms operating or being built and over 4,000 functioning solar projects. More of both are being built and both have higher growth rates than any other generation technology.
Another fact is that shale drilling has created enormous natural gas supplies and has driven down the price of natural gas by 20% in the last year and 70% since 2008, even as oil skyrockets 40% in one year. These sharply lower prices are vital, a true blessing, for poor and middle class families who had $3,000 heating bills in 2007 and 2008 when natural gas cost three times what it costs today. Heat in winter is a necessity, but even now some go without.
The much lower price of natural gas means that it is available for the equivalent of $1.40 per gallon when gasoline now hits about $3.30 a gallon. To capture the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas we must use it to replace dirtier and now more expensive oil and gas.
Society cannot make good decisions without looking at the facts as they are. Gasland does not do that.
In the last year, I have interacted with Josh Fox. While some of his critics would not agree, I believe he has good intentions.
Mr. Fox is giving voice to real concerns and speaking for some people that really have been negatively impacted by drilling who should not be ignored. He would be a more convincing and responsible voice if he were more careful. Indeed we all should strive to be more careful.
Yet, I also believe that his critics that include me would do well to focus on a basic truth: the natural gas industry is industrial and must be strongly regulated. Again, rules must be enforced and strengthened if necessary.
The natural gas industry can be safer and cleaner and should always fix problems right away when they occur.
Natural gas is cleaner than coal and oil, but it is not as clean or safe as it can be. Achieving operational and environmental excellence is a challenge first and foremost for the industry, but it is one that everyone --government, industry, communities, environmental groups -- should help meet.