WASHINGTON -- The fight against oil and gas giants is heating up in the U.S., with new waves of protest and civil disobedience springing up across the country.
The last three weeks saw over 1,200 people arrested outside the White House in Washington D.C. in protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. If approved, it would travel from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, through the heartland of the U.S., threatening huge swathes of fresh water supplies and destroying communities and wildlife habitats along its way, activists say.
Then, on Wednesday, hundreds of local residents, scientists and environmentalists stormed the Shale Gas Insight conference in Philadelphia, demanding a moratorium on increased hydraulic fracturing – or fracking – which they say is contaminating water supplies, devastating animal habitats and paving the way for a major "public health hazard".
Organized by a coalition of environmental and ecological justice groups, including Food & Water Watch (FWW), Protecting our Waters and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the "Shale Gas Outrage" rally continued Thursday with close to 2,000 demonstrators chanting "Ban it Now!" on the sidewalks lining the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
The groups are urging a ban on drilling in Marcellus Shale, the gas- rich underground rock formation beneath Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and New York, which is home to one of the biggest deposits of natural gas on the planet.
The gas is extracted using a drilling process that pumps millions of gallons of water, as well as sand and chemical additives, at high pressure to "fracture" or crack into gas-bearing rock.
While oil and gas companies have repeatedly insisted that the process is safe, environmentalists and residents from areas that have borne the brunt of fracking argue that the process contaminates underground fresh water supplies, poisoning consumers as well as the environment.
"Our immediate goal is to get a moratorium on fracking in the Delaware River Basin because, as of right now, not a single cumulative health assessment has been made about the safety issues involved in the extraction process," Francesca Lo Basso, communications director of the Shale Gas Outrage, told IPS.
"The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently conducting an analysis, but until the results of that study are made public, the process needs to be halted," she said.
"The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is issuing a permit every two to 30 minutes, without having any idea what this could mean for the community or the environment," Lo Basso stressed. "The DEP's own website has recorded 11 violations by gas companies each day, yet there is no regulation of the process."
According to FWW, 15 million people rely on the Delaware River Basin for their fresh drinking water, a fact that has spurred over 80 state and local governments around the U.S. to take action to protect their residents from the impacts of the drilling process.
"People [across the U.S.] are sick from, and sick of fracking," FWW's executive director Wenonah Hauter said in a press release Wednesday.
"We can't stand by and allow the natural gas industry to endanger any more lives or natural resources. We're here to send a message to the industry that it's time to put public safety before corporate interests by banning fracking throughout the U.S," she added.
The gas companies are not backing down, claiming a range of economic incentives in favor of fracking.
"These extremist activists want us to [halt] drilling altogether," Aubrey McClendon, the chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Co., told conference participants Wednesday. "Which is fine if you don't like heat in your home, electricity in your office, a job to go to, and food on your plate."
A study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute (API) and undertaken by the energy consulting firm Wood Mackenzie was released Wednesday, claiming, among other things, that oil-and-gas development could add 1.1 million U.S. jobs over the coming decade and rake in 36 billion dollars in federal revenues by 2015.
The study advocates for an immediate loosening of federal regulations, calls for a green-light on the Keystone XL pipeline and urges the government to deregulate areas where drilling is currently banned, including the Atlantic and Pacific Coast, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and the eastern Gulf of Mexico.
In turn, critics accuse the industry of fear-mongering.
"It's shameful that the oil and gas industry is seeking to horse trade environmental regulations on the false premise that it will create jobs," Hauter said Wednesday.
"Even though President (Barack) Obama is under fire to stimulate the economy, deregulating oil and gas drilling won't necessarily create jobs. Instead it will increase industry profits and pose an unacceptable risk for our nation's water resources, which are absolutely vital to our economy," she said.
According to Mitch Jones, a senior legislative and policy analyst in the water program of FWW, the API study that is currently being widely circulated among lobbyists and industry CEOs makes no promises of employment.
"If you look closely at the report, you will notice it only talks about the possibility of job creation," Jones told IPS.
"Which means we have to take the energy industry's word that it will reinvest the money it might save on energy standards into increased production and, therefore, job creation, rather than channeling those savings into profits," he added.
"With prices low, and a huge glut in the energy market already, this is a tough call," Jones told IPS. "If corporations are allowed to drill as freely as they want to, they can't avoid a bigger drop off in prices, especially with the economy still stagnant and no increased demand."
Empty Threats Unraveled
"It is deeply disconcerting that the industry not only has a swarm of lobbyists here in Washington, as well as in all the state legislatures where decisions about drilling are made, they've also got multimillion dollar advertising campaigns pushing their agenda and commissioning think tanks to put out reports in support of the industry," Mitch Jones of FWW told IPS.
Dangling potential economic destruction and mass job losses as a result of clean energy practices is an old industry tactic.
In 1997, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was attempting to secure stricter regulations on ground-level ozone emissions – or smog – corporate giants such as the American Petroleum Institute, Business Roundtable, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were spending millions to convince the public that tougher clean air standards would "cripple the U.S. economy" by destroying millions of jobs.
Over 14 years later, a comprehensive study by the Center for American Progress (CAP) found that the industries' predictions were completely unfounded.
CAP's detailed analysis of economic growth and employment rates at the time found that smog- choked metropolitan areas that were forced to implement tighter regulations "experienced very similar economic growth [and] employment rates to the nation as a whole".
In fact, CAP found that average GDP per capita in areas predicted to be "devastated" by the EPA's revised standards grew by .7 percent from 2004-2008, while it grew by .87 percent nationwide, a negligible difference.
Similarly, unemployment in the 54 areas affected by the 1997 ozone standard grew by 2.21 percent from 2004- 2008, while unemployment nationwide grew by 2.3 percent.
According to CAP, this data makes abundantly clear that the fear generated by the energy industries was baseless.
Industry Giants Come Full Circle
Industry lobbyists launched an almost identical attack on the most recent attempt by the EPA to update smog pollution.
Last Friday, President Barack Obama announced that he would be abandoning the new air pollution rule brought to him by EPA administrator Lisa Jackson, a move that shocked scores of environmentalists in his camp who had drafted celebratory press releases ahead of the official announcement, so convinced were they that their president would not renege on yet another promise.
According to the EPA, smog is created when pollutants from motor vehicle exhaust, industrial emissions and gasoline vapors from power plants combine with sunlight to form air that "could trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, congestion and [worsening] of bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma."
In 2006, the EPA revisited the science and found that ground- level ozone was actually doing far more damage than simply aggravating respiratory problems - it was actually killing people.
In July 2010, administrator Jackson informed the Senate that the Bush-era smog standards allowing 75 parts per billion (ppb) - which will now remain in place as a result of Obama's decision - "were not legally defensible given the scientific evidence in the record" and called for a tougher standard of 60 ppb, to no avail.
Immediately after the president's announcement Friday, CAP said in a statement, "Today's [decision] grants an item on Big Oil's wish list at the expense of the health of children, seniors and the infirm. A new standard for smog would save 4,300 lives and prevent 7,000 hospital visits and tens of thousands of cases of asthma and other serious respiratory illnesses each year."