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Penn. Governor Greenlights Fracking on College Campuses

Common Dreams staff

Penn. students still have a chance to challenge fracking on college campuses. (Photo by: Charlotte Bodak/ Central Michigan Life)

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett thinks state colleges should be tapping in to one of their greatest assets. Youthful energy? No. Great minds? No. Shale gas!

This week the governor signed into law the Indigenous Mineral Resource Development Act, which allows the state to make and execute contracts for the "mining or removal of coal, oil, natural gas, coal bed methane and limestone found in or beneath land owned by the state or state system of higher education." As the governor of a state that has wholeheartedly embraced shale oil and gas production, his hope is that this bill will have coeds cheering 'bring on the fracking!'

Corbett first suggested campus exploitation as a means of revenue last year when he said that schools "could ease their financial woes by tapping into Marcellus shale deposits beneath their campuses," reported the Erie Times News. This brainstorm came after Corbett's 2011 budget slashed funding for the 14 schools under Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) by 18 percent. (The same budget included a $1.7 billion tax break for Shell in an attempt to beguile them to build a new refinery in Western Penn.)

Though the law applies to all the schools within the PSSHE, the six that that sit atop the Marcellus Shale are likely the most economically viable. The act (PDF) is certainly lucrative, with "50 percent of all fees and royalties from the mineral leases […] retained by the university where those minerals are mined, 35 percent […] distributed across the state system, and another 15 percent […] towards subsidizing student tuition."

However, that windfall disregards the great environmental and health risks associated with shale gas production. Environmentalists and educators are already clamoring about student risk, exposing them to known carcinogens and harms that include explosions, water contamination and air pollution.

The concern is compounded because of Pennsylvania's lousy regulation record. According to the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, between 2008 and 2011 drilling companies racked up a total of 2,392 violations of environmental law that pose a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in 2010, the state let 82,602 active wells go uninspected.

The sliver of silver lining is that, under the Indigenous Mineral Resources Development Act, presidents of the state universities must provide written authorization to allow drilling on campus. This leaves open the opportunity for students and community members to rally and petition their university heads.

Mother Jones writes:

Professor Bob Myers, who runs the Environmental Studies program at Lock Haven University, one of the schools at the edge of the Marcellus, says he understands the school system's economic concerns. Still, he's horrified at the prospect that PASSHE might install rigs near students. "I've become extremely concerned, disturbed, and disgusted by the environmental consequences of fracking," Myers says. "They've had explosions, tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals spilled. And we're going to put this on campus?"

Pennsylvania campuses are not the only ones under duress. A number of schools in West Virginia have already leased their land to fracking companies and Ohio has passed similar laws. The University of Texas also collects revenue from natural gas well pads on campus.

"We gave [the fossil fuel industry] carte blanche to the state," Professor Myers lamented to Mother Jones. "And it's just because Pennsylvania needed the money."

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