Top Shale Fracking Executive: We Won't Frack the Rich

Fracking companies deliberately keep their wells away from the “big houses” of wealthy and potentially influential people, a top executive from one of the country's most prominent shale drilling companies told a gathering of attorneys at a seminar on oil and gas environmental law earlier this month, according the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“'We heard Range Resources say it sites its shale gas wells away from large homes where wealthy people live and who might have the money to fight such drilling and fracking operations,' said Patrick Grenter, an attorney and Center for Coalfield Justice executive director, who attended the lawyers’ forum,” the Post-Gazette reported. “A handful of attorneys in the audience confirmed that account,” and added that the Range Resources official had prefaced his remarks by saying “To be frank”.

The comments were made by Terry Bossert, Range Resources’s vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs, during a presentation at the Pennsylvania Bar Institute's Environmental Law Forum on April 7. In 2004, Range Resources was the first company to drill in Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale – but it has racked up a string of environmental violations so severe that state regulators slapped it with a record-breaking $4.15 million fine in 2014, followed the next year by an $8.9 million fine over a different incident.  

The company has also repeatedly been sued by landowners – and not just in Pennsylvania, but also in their home state of Texas. It made international headlines when a gag order – part of a $750,000 settlement agreement between the company and a family over a contaminated 10-acre farm in Mount Pleasant, PA – barred two children from speaking about fracking for life (a ban that the company later repudiated, after the settlement terms were unsealed and made public). It's also involved in a high-profile legal battle in Texas, where the company is suing Parker County homeowner Steven Lipsky over a video showing Mr. Lipsky's flaming water well, claiming that the video is defamatory.

It's also not the first time that comments by top company execs have caused concern. In 2011, at a media relations conference for the fracking industry, Range's public relations director, Matt Pitzarella revealed that the company's communications strategy involved hiring combat veterans with PSYOPs experience to influence communities in the U.S.

As DeSmog previously reported, Mr. Pitzarella told the crowd:

…looking to other industries, in this case, the Army and the Marines. We have several former PSYOPs folks that work for us at Range because they’re very comfortable in dealing with localized issues and local governments. Really all they do is spend most of their time helping folks develop local ordinances and things like that. But very much having that understanding of PSYOPs in the Army and in the Middle East has applied very helpfully here for us in Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Bossert's comments drew an immediate response from two of the environmental groups at the seminar, the Center for Coalfield Justice and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Sierra Club, which sent a letter demanding an investigation into whether Range Resources wells showed any discriminatory patterns.

“Mr. Bossert’s comments serve as actual notice of the need to implement policies and practices that protect these communities from the adverse effects of industrial land uses,” the groups wrote.

Studies testing for discriminatory impacts from shale drilling have come to widely differing conclusions, especially given that fracked wells can be found in densely-populated urban areas like Fort Worth, TX as well as remote corners of Wyoming and North Dakota. As of 2013, over 15 million Americans lived within a mile of a shale well — roughly one out of every 20 U.S. residents.

But there are some signs that lower-income Pennsylvanians may be more vulnerable to the impacts of shale drilling.

“No matter how you estimate proximity, it always came up as exposure was significantly, much higher” in low-income Pennsylvania communities, Yelena Ogneva-Himmelberger, a Clark University assistant professor who published a paper last year that concluded that active fracking wells are “strongly associated” with poverty in the state, told Scientific American.

That has environmental groups questioning what steps regulators are taking to protect communities from deliberate targeting by industries that view them as more vulnerable.

“Although Pennsylvania has had an environmental justice office since 2002, its oversight duties have regularly suffered from understaffing,” the Post-Gazette reported. “And prior to October 2015, shale gas well-drilling permits were not one of the state permits that triggered an environmental justice review.”

Although the new administration has pledged to step up its enforcement of environmental justice standards, critics have long charged that the state's laws are toothless, even when adequately enforced, because they only require communication and do not give communities the power to reject wells over racial or class-based discrimination.

“It’s movement in the right direction for the DEP to consider environmental justice communities when making its decisions. And it makes no sense to have carved out those exceptions for oil and gas operations,” George Jugovic Jr., chief counsel at the environmental group PennFuture, told the Post-Gazette in October, referring to an exemption for the industry imposed under former Governor Tom Corbett. “But the question the department really needs to answer is what difference does a review make if drilling companies aren’t required to make changes to reduce risks in those communities?”

Nationwide, environmental justice issues have rarely been effectively addressed by state or federal regulators, according to a powerful investigative reporting series published last year by the Center for Public Integrity. “The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights is charged with investigating complaints of discrimination filed against state and local agencies that receive EPA funds and, upon unearthing evidence of injustice, making things right,” The Center for Public Integrity reported last year. “But our investigation shows that the office has not made a formal finding of discrimination in 22 years, despite having received hundreds of complaints, some exhaustively documented.”

The EPA's Civil Rights office is not only charged with addressing income-based discrimination, but racial discrimination as well. But the agency has rejected more than 90 percent of the complaints it received between 1996 and mid-2013, the Center for Public Integrity found. The agency most often failed to pursue an investigation, and when investigations have happened, they've moved at a snail's pace, with the EPA routinely missing statutory deadlines.

“In this country, we’ve talked a lot about Black Lives Matter, and children especially living in overburdened communities of color, their health matters,” Marianne Engelman Lado, an Earthjustice senior staff attorney, who last year sued the EPA on behalf of five Black and Latino communities over the agency's backlog of discrimination cases, told Ebony in January. “The issue of whether the EPA is going to enforce civil rights is immediate and important.”

In December, EPA announced some rule changes aimed at improving the Civil Rights office's turn-around time. But the office is chronically under-staffed and under-funded, critics charge, and their staffers need experience seeing even relatively clear-cut cases of discrimination through to a resolution, according to former agency insiders.

Matt Pitzarella, the Range Resources spokesperson, told the Post-Gazette that Mr. Bossert's statements about deliberately avoiding the wealthy were intended as sarcasm. But environmental attorneys present said that wasn't the way it seemed when Mr. Bossert made his remarks.

“My personal take on it, and I don’t think there’s another way to interpret it, is that people with fewer resources to challenge the industry are the ones being targeted for well development,” Logan Welde, a Clean Air Council staff attorney present when the Range Resources VP made his comment, told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette. “I don’t really think it’s a secret that the industry is doing this, but to be so bold to publicly state that is just so brazen and just shows how confident the industry is in the state.”

Photo Credit: Shale Gas Well 4, by Jeremy Buckingham, via Flickr