According to a new report from the group PennEnvironment, only 17 percent of environmental or health violations by fracking companies in Pennsylvania resulted in fines. And when companies did get fined, the penalties were relatively small. In fact, the report found the median fine was just $5,263.
“They’re basically getting away with a 10-cent parking ticket for serious violations of regulations meant to protect our health and our environment,” says Stephen Riccardi, PennEnvironment’s western Pennsylvania field organizer for research and policy.
The group is using the report’s findings to call for added scrutiny of the fracking industry. In particular, Riccardi says the state should raise fines to deter companies from violating environmental regulations. “It makes perfect sense to continually increase those fines until they see the need to address the cause of those problems,” he says.
The report sites peer-reviewed studies showing associations between proximity to fracking activities and health impacts, including respiratory and neurological problems and risk of birth defects.
“As the mapping and our understanding of health effects has grown, we are starting to see that type of connection between health effects and where the Marcellus Shale fracking is happening,” says Raina Rippel, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.
PennEnvironment is also asking the state to implement a moratorium on new drilling, deny drilling permits for companies that are repeat offenders of environmental rules, and to increase bonding requirements for fracking companies. Currently, companies can take out a $600,000 “blanket bond” for all their wells in the state, no matter how many wells they own. That means if a company goes bankrupt, the state would have only that amount of money to clean up any environmental problems left behind by their operations.
PennEnvironment’s report found that only 17 percent of environmental or health violations by fracking companies in Pennsylvania actually resulted in fines. And when companies did get fined, the penalties were relatively small. The median fine was $5,263.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Neil Shader says the state’s commitment to keeping the natural gas industry from polluting “is clearly demonstrated in the year-over-year decrease in violations from operators” in the state. From 2010 to 2015, violations for “unconventional” gas wells decreased from 1,280 to 404, according to the DEP.
The PennEnvironment report was panned by the gas industry. Marcellus Shale Coalition spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright says the state has stepped up its inspections, even as the number of wells drilled in the state has gone down.
“Natural gas development is tightly regulated,” she said in an email. “It’s improving our environment and our economy, and it’s enhancing America’s energy security while putting tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians to work.”
Natural gas has largely replaced coal as a source for electricity, resulting in lower emissions in Pennsylvania. Since 2000, the electricity sector’s carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 13 percent, according to data from the Energy Information Administration. Nationwide, emissions are also down due to the increased use of natural gas.
The report also points out there has been other environmental fallout from the fracking boom, including impacts to water supplies. DEP has affirmed 284 private water supplies have been “impacted by oil and gas activities” since 2008.
Editor’s note: The PennEnvironment report was funded in part by The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.