OPED: Gas company subsidies hurt Pa. families

Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox and Shannon Brown, Esq.

The Pennsylvania General Assembly did not have the votes to pass yet more subsidies to the oil and natural gas industry before its recess. The proposed subsidies severely weaken protections for our children, families, and future generations to benefit the oil and gas industry. Despite no public demand for such bills, the Assembly persistently plans to try again on their return to Harrisburg after the primary elections.

FILE – In this Oct. 14, 2011, file photo, a drilling rig is set up to tap gas from the Marcellus Shale gas field, near a barn in the Susquehanna County township of Springville, Pa. Natural gas producers drilled more than twice as many shale wells in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period last year. One big reason is that natural gas prices have recovered from 20-year lows, nearly doubling since last year. Three counties, Washington, Greene and Susquehanna, account for more than 60 percent of the wells drilled so far this year. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

As pro-life Christians here in Pennsylvania — Rev. Hescox, the head of a Christian environmental organization and Shannon Brown, a public interest attorney — we strongly oppose these efforts. The companion bills, House Bill HB2154 and Senate Bill SB1088, maximize profits for the natural gas industry and bury the costs in the lungs, hearts, and minds of our children. The bills also cleverly shift the costs of cleaning up the industry’s messes to Pennsylvania property owners and taxpayers. 

HB2154 and SB1088 place our children’s health and future at risk by:

  • Needlessly rolling back performance and community protection standards.
  • Unfairly weakening drilling standards and corporate obligations that protect the public and landowners.
  • Allowing drillers to spill millions of gallons of “brine, crude oil, drilling or frac fluids and similar substances” without any accountability under the Storage Tank and Spill Prevention Act.
  • Barring local communities from passing sensible ordinances to protect their communities.
  • Allow drillers and well owners to contaminate water supplies and then simply “replace” water supplies with water systems that the driller deems suitable.

Surface landowners, and their families’ property rights, may be significantly impacted because the bills:

  • Restrict landowners' objections to drilling permits to only the well location and the permit’s accuracy. Landowners, at their cost, have only 15 days after application filing to raise concerns.
  • Bar landowners from challenging any waivers to the rules given to drillers, waivers that may allow gas or oil wells closer than 200 feet from homes and water wells.
  • Create unreasonable limitations on liability for the drillers and well owners.
  • Contain roadblocks to restrict landowners from recovering damage costs, raising health issues, or defending private property by nullifying landowner rights or by requiring expensive litigation or cumbersome administrative procedures.

Surprisingly, many of the supporters of these problematic bills claim to be pro-life. Yet, medical procedures alone do not define “pro-life” as Pope Francis, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), and Focus on the Family, for example, agree. “Pro-life” also encompasses life itself, the community, and future-looking decisions. As Pope Francis insightfully wrote, “only when ‘the economic and social costs of using up shared environmental resources are recognized with transparency and fully borne by those who incur them, not by other peoples or future generations’, can those actions be considered ethical.” It gets no plainer.

It’s not only religious institutions that understand “pro-life” as caring for all life — so do many Pennsylvanians. In April, nearly 15,000, pro-life, Pennsylvania Christians boldly demanded standards for reducing damaging methane leaks caused by the oil and gas industry. The message: people care about their communities, share concern about serious risks, and demand creative solutions — not rolling back protections.

As pro-life evangelicals, we want children to be born healthy and unhindered by the ravages of pollution. A study by University of Pittsburgh researchers found evidence of low birthweight babies associated with proximity to unconventional natural gas wells in Butler County, PA, and another study in 2015 linked birth defects to methane production. Up to 40 percent of children who live within a half mile of natural gas production site are born premature. Knowing this, elected leaders still press to further weaken the already minimal standards in the oil and gas industry.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with jobs or profits, but they must not come at the expense of our children and grandchildren. It’s time to put our children’s health first. That’s what we do as caring parents and adults. We expect the same from those who represent us.

Rev. Mitchell C. Hescox is CEO, Evangelical Environmental Network in New Freedom, Pa. and Shannon Brown is a public interest attorney in Clarks Summit, Pa.

Rev. Mitch Hescox, of New Freedom, talks about his role in preserving funds that help maintain national parks and monuments during an interview near Lake Redman at William Kain Park in Jacobus, Tuesday, May 30, 2017. Dawn J. Sagert photo
Shannon Brown