Caught in the Crosshairs of Corporate Power. Part 3: Fracking Pollution
This is part three of a five part series.
When political candidates spend their time begging for cash from wealthy interests and legislating to prioritize private profits over the public good, regular people lose out. The corporations and superrich donors that dominate our elections have an outsized influence over who wins, what gets discussed in campaigns and what legislative ideas receive serious consideration.
The sweeping legislative package known as the For the People Act (H.R. 1) contains ethics, campaign finance and voting rights reforms that are essential to make our government work effectively and fairly.
To illustrate the need for reforms that reduce corporate influence and redistribute power to the people, Public Citizen compiled stories of five regular Americans whose lives have been impacted by corporate political power.
Corporate Power Spotlight: Fracking Pollution
“How do you as a landowner stand a chance when the industry wrote the law?”
– Ronald Gulla, 63, Canonsburg, Pennsylvania
With more than six years of experience working for oil and gas businesses, Ron Gulla thought he understood the industry. In 2002, he signed a lease to allow drilling on his farm. That lease would later be acquired by Range Resources, a major fracking corporation based in Texas. When drilling began in 2005, Gulla found himself mired in a toxic mess.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves in drilling deep into the earth and injecting the wells with millions of gallons of water, sand and other chemicals to break apart underground shale rock and release the gas.
“Range Resources says ‘Drilling is just the beginning’,” said Gulla. “Well, the spilling is also the beginning.”
Pennsylvania. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is overseeing a grand jury investigation into alleged environmental crimes in Washington County, Pa. — an investigation which reportedly includes alleged wrongdoing by Range Resources.
Over three years, four gas wells were drilled on Gulla’s farm in Washington County, Pa, about 30 miles west of Pittsburgh. The nearest drilling rig was 600 feet away. The road the drillers built used mill slag – a byproduct of steel manufacturing often seen piled up in black heaps near steel mills – in order to access one of the rig was just 150 feet away.
When it rained, Gulla recalls water running off of the drillers’ road, through the slag and into his family’s water well. “That mill slag is toxic,” said Gulla. “There’s arsenic in it, there’s pieces of railroad tie in it, which has creosote [a toxic substance]. It has metal in it and plastic and all kinds of garbage. If you go and buy slag, it tells you right there on the back of it, don’t breathe the dust. It’s bad stuff.”
Gulla’s family immediately stopped drinking the discolored well water. “Two years or so down the road, I noticed while brushing my teeth that the water got a really strong metallic taste to it.”
Gulla also saw fracking wastewater from well pads – the small industrial sites where the drilling workers operated the rigs – flowing directly onto soil and into a stream. He saw the vegetation in the fish pond downhill from the well pads turn yellow and die. Then fish died. So did deer and neighboring cattle.
Black water bubbled and flowed from outside the well casing at the drill site near Gulla’s pond, he said. A water test in 2009 showed high levels of volatile organic compounds known as BTEXes – benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene. “All that was going into the pond,” said Gulla. “That’s what was killing everything. They’re all carcinogens. They’re deadly. You don’t want to be exposed to this stuff. And they were exposing us.”
In 2005, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Policy Act, which contained provisions, infamously dubbed the “Halliburton loophole,” exempting the fracking industry from essential antipollution regulation.
But environmental groups have been unable to convince lawmakers to eliminate the loophole. Their many years of efforts have so far been blocked due to the industry’s stranglehold on Congress. Gulla sees the outsized role of big money in American politics as a key reason: “Everything comes back to Citizens United,” Gulla said, referring to the 2010 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court allowing corporations to spend as much as they want to influence elections.
“There is no way on God’s green earth I would have signed the lease if I had known they were going to be exempt from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. And the Safe Drinking Water Act. And the Right to Know, and the Superfund Act,” said Gulla. “When I worked in this industry, they were not exempt.”
He added: “How do you as a landowner stand a chance when the industry wrote the law?”
CORPORATE INFLUENCE AT WORK
The oil and gas industry uses its political influence to secure policies to block environmental and public protections and suppress development of the renewable energy sources that are essential for averting catastrophic climate change.
The oil and gas industry has:
- Spent more than $1.5 billion on lobbying in Washington since 2008.
- Contributed more than $297 million in campaign money to Congress over the past 30 years.
- Contributed 79 percent to Congressional Republicans and 21 percent to Congressional Democrats.
SOURCE: Center for Responsive Politics.
Under former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, whose election and re-election campaigns received millions from the oil and gas industry, lawmakers enacted the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which had its origins in Cheney’s infamous energy task force that met in secret with energy company lobbyists. This bill secured billions in subsidies and regulatory rollbacks – including exemptions for fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Legislation to close the loopholes, which have been introduced and collectively dubbed the “Frack Pack” have not advanced. Meanwhile, the oil and gas industry continues to gush donations on lawmakers that block progress on renewables. A recent Huffington Post analysis finds that senators who have not co-sponsored the Green New Deal legislation, which would move to end U.S. reliance on polluting fossil fuels for energy, receive an average of seven times more in contributions from the oil and gas industry.
LOBBYING AND CAMPAIGN CONTRIBUTIONS:
Top Senate recipients of oil and gas contributions include U.S. senators from Texas, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn (more than $3 million each over the course of their careers). Former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) each received more than $2 million from the industry. In the House, former Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), who served as chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee and infamously apologized to BP for how the government treated the oil giant after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster, received more than $2 million from the industry, more than any other House member.