In 2014, I stormed the stage of the live televised debate of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. I had been waiting for months for a real discussion about one of the gravest threats to the health of Pennsylvanians and the planet, and I had not heard it mentioned. No one was talking about fracking.
Four years later, I've grown up a little, and I'm learning about public policy as part of my graduate degree. The world has learned a lot more about fracking in that time, too: its dangers and its effects. But as the Oct. 1 debate, moderated by Alex Trebek, between incumbent Tom Wolf and Republican challenger Scott Wagner, showed, unfortunately, our state's leaders have learned almost nothing. They continue to remain silent on the terrible impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. Worse, they are not even asking the right questions.
Let's start with what is now clearly known about fracking.
The first question should be: Can fracking be done safely without toxic pollution of the surrounding environment and threats to human health? The answer is no. There is now ample peer-reviewed academic research on the subject. A moratorium on additional drilling and new permits should be immediate. There are nearly 9,000 wells permitted to be drilled and more applications come in every day. That is in addition to the 11,000 unconventional wells already drilled to date in Pennsylvania.
What is not known — and what any person proposing to lead Pennsylvania should be demanding an answer to — is a clear accounting of the health and safety impacts of active and previously drilled wells and the costs imposed on our communities. There should be a tax on existing fracking operations to cover the costs of damage done, and for the necessary, ongoing oversight and maintenance of wells after they have been drilled.
To decide a reasonable tax rate, common sense dictates that the cost of damage from fracking needs to be quantified. Right now, we can't accurately assess what amount of money would be needed to offset the cost of fracking to taxpayers. We haven't done that assessment in Pennsylvania or in any other state. Not on the community level, the county level, or the state level.
We also need to account for the damage fracking is doing to our climate, which significantly impacts Pennsylvania. The United Nations climate report issued last week makes more clear than ever the need to phase out dirty fossil fuels as quickly as possible. Methane released from fracking in drilling, transport, and end use is a potent greenhouse gas in its own right. When methane impacts are factored in, fracking is not producing a so-called "clean" bridge fuel to a clean energy future. It is instead a heavy contributor to climate change, while its false promise of clean energy is undermining the political will to transition more quickly away from dirty fuels to a renewable energy economy.
It's easy to see this as an issue solely of concern to communities where drilling is happening. But we know from evidence that toxins migrate beyond their point of origin. Whether you're from a city, a suburb, or a rural area, the costs of fracking will be borne by all Pennsylvanians, and the damage to the climate will be borne by everyone. The powerful corporations behind fracking have worked hard to quiet this debate. But collectively, we have the power to resist them by speaking up directly to our elected officials at their offices, at their political campaign events, and yes, maybe even on stage during a debate.
Gas-drilling companies are getting rich off the mineral, community, and human resources of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And they are using that wealth to buy the politicians who should be protecting us. A hefty extraction tax is, quite literally, the least our leaders can do to ensure we are compensated for loss, damages, and future well maintenance costs. However, the only path to long-term prosperity for Pennsylvania is through a transition from dirty fuels to a clean energy economy. We deserve elected officials who care about our children and grandchildren and will focus on locally made clean energy to wean us off of costly, dirty out-of-date fuels.
Elizabeth Arnold is a Philadelphian pursuing a master of science in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Prior to grad school, she was both an electrician and political organizer.