Fracking Higher Ed: An Interview with Wendy Lynne Lee

clean water

Fracking Protest, Williamsport, PA. 3.20.14. photo by Wendy Lee

While colleges and universities are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions from their own operations, they may become complicit in a much bigger threat to the environment and human health that would negate any and all efforts at sustainability on campus. This threat is fracking, coming to a campus near you. Otherwise known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock by injecting large volumes of water and chemical fluids at high pressure into deep wells. With the promise of reduced oil imports and lower energy prices, domestic natural gas production through fracking has seen a huge uptick since 2005. In 2012, 30% of all electricity generated in the United States came from natural gas, up from 18.7% in 2005. The thirst for domestic natural gas is so great that energy companies are approaching colleges and universities for permission to frack on their land.

Supporters of fracking argue that natural gas is a cheap and abundant energy source that releases less carbon dioxide when burned. However, policies regulating natural gas extraction have not caught up with the industry and the practice currently poses significant environmental and human health hazards. Fracking destroys a tremendous amount of clean water. According to the EPA, fracking a single well requires anywhere from 2 to 10 million gallons of water. Along with water, a cocktail of hundreds of chemicals are injected into a fracking well, including many known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors such as lead, uranium, mercury, and formaldehyde. Approximately 40,000 gallons of chemicals are used per fracturing, and a well can be fracked up to eight times. After fracking, the toxic liquid is left behind in the well where it can contaminate groundwater and nearby streams. An estimated 100 new wells are being drilled in the United States each day (Gold, Chapter 1).

us_shale_mapPennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, North Dakota, and Texas are the hotspots of fracking because they contain shale formations known to harbor large amounts of natural gas. Many of the potential wells are located close to residents, towns, and farms. In Pennsylvania, some of this land is located on college and university campuses. In 2012, Governor Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania signed into law a bill that would allow fracking, oil drilling, and coal mining on 14 of the state’s public universities. The idea isn’t new. A couple of colleges in West Virginia have leased their land to fracking companies, and a similar legislation has been implemented in Ohio. Indiana State University currently has a lease that allows for oil drilling on campus. In Pennsylvania the pressure on university presidents to sign a deal is intensified by budget cuts of 18% to the public university system that went into effect in 2012. Should the universities lease land to fracking companies, 50% of fees and royalties from the natural gas will go to the universities and 15% will go towards subsidizing student tuition (Brownstone 2012).

Concerned that fracking on campus would leave students and the community directly exposed to harms like explosions, water contamination, and air pollution, the Association of Pennsylvania College and University Faculties (APCUF), representing more than 6000 faculty and coaches in the state university system, unanimously passed a Resolution opposing leasing university land for fracking in September of 2013. The decision is also motivated by the fact that energy companies in Pennsylvania have a terrible record for violating environmental regulations. According to the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, Pennsylvania drilling companies racked up a total of 3,355 violations between 2008 and 2011, 2,392 of which posed a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities (Brownstone 2012).

With a shock of blonde hair and tattoos of intertwining lizards on her arm (they stand for freedom and integrity, she says), Wendy Lee is a tenured professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University, one of the fourteen schools in the PA State System of Higher Education. A fierce opponent of fracking on campus and everywhere, Wendy is an outspoken activist who helped draft APCUF resolution on fracking and a leader of organized protests against fracking in Pennsylvania. She is a mother of four, a marathon runner, photographer, vegetarian, and author of books about feminism and aesthetics. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in April where she gave me many insights about how fracking is changing the landscape of her home state and her experience as an anti-fracking activist.

Clara: What is your background? How did you become involved in the anti-fracking movement?

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Wendy Lee

Wendy: I grew up in Colorado where I spent a lot of time in nature. From an early age, I was passionate about animal rights and environmental ethics. I got my PhD in Philosophy at Marquette University where I studied philosophy and animal cognition. I currently teach classes on ecology and feminism. In addition all of my life I have been involved in advocacy. I’ve spent time advocating for women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, and environmental justice. It has always been a part of my life.

Fracking is an issue that is literally close to home for me. I live on the Marcellus Shale. There are well pads, pipelines, compressors, treatment plants and trucks rolling through at all hours within a forty minute drive of my home. The other day I was driving down Route 220 near Sownestown, a two-lane country highway in rural Pennsylvania, when I saw a chemical spill off a drilling pad where fracking fluid had leaked out of a ruptured pipe. There was a pool of greenish brown liquid with an oily sheen on top of it covering about an acre. It had this acrid smell that burns your nose with a sickly-sweet under taste that makes you think, this is what cancer smells like; this cannot be good. I had my camera with me so I walked out to the spill to take some pictures. As I was doing so I fell into the pool. It came up to my knees. I could also see that the liquid was running right into a creek. So I can say that this is happening in front of my eyes.

Clara: Do you see this type of thing frequently?

Wendy: You rarely hear about it but I can tell you it happens a lot more often than the industry lets on. A lot of spills happen in rural areas where the only people around to know about it are people working in the industry, or employees that live in the community who are not going to say anything about it. The spill on Route 220 wouldn’t have made it into the media if I hadn’t taken pictures and made a big stink about it.

Clara:  Are you experiencing the negative impacts of fracking where you live?

Photo by Wendy Lee

Photo by Wendy Lee

Wendy: This whole region is becoming an industrial gas factory. I recently heard that a pipeline is being proposed to be built right through the town where I live. It is happening all over this place. They are talking about drilling 100,000 wells in Pennsylvania in the next 10 years and most of the product will be exported once they build the export facility at Cove Point, Maryland, if activists don’t stop it. The influx of fracking means that the ecology of this region will be dramatically altered. The air will be polluted, the water destroyed, the forests liquidated, and the wildlife exterminated. The people who are still here will be at high risk for cancer, birth defects, and other health problems and their properties will be rendered valueless. They will not be able to sell their homes at the same time that they’ll be exposed to all these hazards and nuisances. Already a lot of rural towns in PA are seeing upsurges in population due to the industry moving in. Restaurants are changing their menus to include Texas specialties. It has brought an economic boon but also a rise in drug use, alcohol abuse, and sexual assault that comes with a migrant population.

Clara: What is a recent protest in which you took part?

Tiadaghton State Forest protest

Tiadaghton State Forest protest. Photo by Wendy Lee

Wendy: On Thursday, March 20, 2014, I took part in an action with Marcellus Shale EarthFirst against Anadarko Petroleum in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. The action was in response to an executive order by PA Governor Tom Corbett to open the Tiadaghton State Forest and other state lands to fracking. The protestors, five Pennsylvania residents and students, chained themselves to pieces of concrete and blocked the only access road to a well pad, preventing workers from entering the site for six hours. Other activists held a rally at Anadarko’s corporate offices in Williamsport PA simultaneously. According to PA DEP’s Oil and Gas Compliance Report, Anadarko has been cited with nearly 250 environmental violations over the last five years, ranking the company in the top three percent of violators statewide. All five activists were arrested and put into Lycoming County jail where three of them were given the maximum bail amount of $12,500 per person, and two of them were given the bail of $10,000. We hired pro bono lawyers but the judge refused to reduce their bail. The families of the activists and Marcellus Shale EarthFirst got together the funds to bail them out in the end. The last activist was out of jail by March 29, nine days after being arrested for the protest. The dedication of these activists is incredible.

Clara: How does the fracking industry get permission to drill on private land? Don’t landowners have the power to oppose it? 

Wendy: If it’s government land the companies want to drill on, all they have to do is apply for a permit with the Department of Environmental Protection and a permit is almost always granted. Governor Tom Corbett’s administration is in bed with the energy industry and it’ll do anything to help industry extract as much natural gas as possible. It’s a revolving door: the former head of the DEP was a natural gas industry lawyer, and after he resigned as head of the DEP, he went back to work for the industry. On privately owned land it’s a little trickier. Sometimes the energy company will offer the landowner money to lease their land and royalties from the gas extracted. But they’ll offer as little as they think they can get away with, and they’ll take the expenses of drilling on your land out of the lease, and if anything bad happens, the landowner assumes all liability. Now if you refuse to lease the land to them, the state cans still take it away by eminent domain. Companies are also using another tactic called forced pooling, where if your neighbors have all signed leases to allow fracking on their land, then the company could force you to allow fracking on your land because you are surrounded by land leased to fracking. Right now there is a case going to court in Pulaski Township against Hilcorp Energy Co. that will determine whether force pooling is constitutional. This is going to be a precedent setting case because if it becomes legal in Pulaski Township there’s nothing to stop it from becoming legal everywhere.

Clara: On Shalejustice.org, an activist organization you are heavily involved with, there is an article about Act 13 which stipulated that the State of Pennsylvania can take away the right of municipalities to determine whether they’ll permit fracking on their land. Can you summarize what that was about and where the legislation stands?

Wendy: Act 13 was signed into law by Governor Corbett on February 14, 2012 to make it easier for the industry to gain permission to frack on public land. Traditionally, municipalities in Pennsylvania have the right to determine how the land will be put to use within their boundaries, whether that’s allowing a factory farm or a Walmart in the neighborhood. Act 13 effectively takes away the rights of municipalities to determine how their land will be put to use and puts it in the hands of the Attorney General’s Office. The other part of the act, which made people really angry, was a “gag order” which required medical professionals to sign a non-disclosure agreement regarding the chemicals used by the fracking industry. This means that if you are suffering from an ailment caused by exposure to fracking chemicals, your doctor couldn’t tell you what chemicals were causing you problems. It’s a complete violation of the Hippocratic oath and people of course were quite outraged by this. By the end of March 2012, seven municipalities had filed a lawsuit challenging Act 13. I and the other grassroots organizations defended the rights of communities to determine land use within their boundaries as granted by the state constitution ever since the state was formed. The Commonwealth Court determined that Act 13 was unconstitutional. The Corbett administration appealed, and when the case was heard before the PA Supreme Court in January of 2014, the court upheld the decision of the lower court. So we won that case. But there’s force pooling and other tactics the industry can still use to get land for fracking wherever and whenever they want.

Clara: Pennsylvania has passed legislation allowing universities to lease land to energy companies for fracking. What is happening with that? Has the industry approached your university about fracking?

Wendy: The Pennsylvania System of Higher Education has fourteen schools, and several of them, including Bloomsburg University where I teach, are on the Marcellus Shale. The Indigenous Mineral Resources Development Act signed by Governor Corbett in October 2012 basically allows energy companies to approach universities for a lease to frack on their land. In exchange the government of Pennsylvania will give schools royalties from the natural gas profits and tuition subsidies. The energy companies may offer a scholarship, a baseball park, or a hotdog party for graduation.

One reason that the university administrators are considering these offers is that the state university system has experienced serious budget cuts under the current administration. A couple of years ago Governor Corbett proposed to cut the university system budget by 53%. This would have been devastating, but the schools organized resistance and students got involved and protested the budget cuts. Instead, a cut of 18% was implemented, which was still a huge blow. The next year the budget was cut another 2% and the year after that another 2%. As a result programs have been eliminated and staff and faculty laid off. Now the Governor is saying, “how about a little frack action to restore your salaries?” In my view, this is extortion.

The faculty of the university system are unionized, and when the issue of fracking came before the Association of Pennsylvania University and College Faculties, it caused a big controversy. Some folks thought that the money fracking would bring in would benefit the schools, especially in the west where the land is very valuable for the fracking industry. I helped draft the resolution for the faculty union opposing fracking, stating that there can be no fracking, no pipelines, no waste processing plants or any infrastructure associated with natural gas extraction on any land owned by the PA universities. Eventually it passed unanimously. However, this is only a resolution of the faculty union. The university administration could totally disregard it and proceed to negotiate with the energy companies.

Clara: Is there awareness and concern about fracking on campus? How is the campus community responding?

Wendy: At other campuses where fracking is a stronger prospect there is more interest, but there is not much activism at Bloomsburg. Generally the attitude is if the problem is not right here people they don’t have to think about it, or they don’t have time to deal with it, or their jobs will be in jeopardy if they get involved. We have a Green Campus Initiative at Bloomsburg, a committee composed of faculty, staff, and students of which I’m apart that is involved in sustainability initiatives. We do good, safe things. Nobody is opposed to recycling, or farmer’s markets, or energy efficiency. Currently we are talking about replacing the coal fired heating plant on campus with one that burns natural gas. But I tell them why do we have to support the natural gas industry? Why not convert to a biomass burner? In fact, we already have one that we aren’t using very much. Why don’t we get onboard with divestment? But I don’t get a lot of response raising these issues.

Clara: Do you feel like academia is becoming a more difficult place for faculty interested in activism?

Wendy: Definitely. Academia is not what it used to be. Schools are increasingly losing public funding and making it up by taking money from private industries. As a result, teaching is increasingly geared towards employable skills. Universities are essentially becoming employee pipelines for the industries that fund them. For example, at Bloomsburg, the university now offers certificates in truck driving and machine operation. These programs are attractive to students because they can help them get a job. However, it’s an education model that leaves no room for the humanities, including the arts, history, and philosophy. There is no room for the production of anything that is not related to jobs. Education becomes about producing workers instead of citizens. Citizens can criticize and drive out industries that jeopardize public health and the environment; workers can’t. In addition, tenured faculty are increasingly being replaced by adjunct faculty, who are the factory workers of academia with no job security or benefits. My colleagues and I are probably the last generation of real tenured humanities professors. When we retire, we will be replaced by adjuncts. The loss of tenure is the loss of academic freedom.

Clara: Have you gotten push back from your university regarding your activism?

Wendy: I get calls from my Dean sometimes, which are always friendly. He says, “Wendy, we have been getting some phone calls. Do you think you could take a little hiatus from your blog? Do you think you could stay off the op-ed page of the local newspaper for a while?” I say, “no, I can’t.” I get hate mail. I was visited at home by the state police who wanted to investigate me for trespassing fracking sites. I took pictures of a frack pad, but these companies that want to drill wells and pump toxic chemicals in my backyard, they are not trespassing? My phone is almost certainly tapped. Sometimes I hear little noises during my calls or it gets really hot for no reason. I had to change my number four times in the last 18 months. Once I came home to find the anti-fracking signs I had planted in my front yard all bent over. Maybe someone was trying to say this is what we will do to you. At the university, I think some people may heave a sigh of relief when I retire, but they can’t get rid of me otherwise.

Clara: Because burning natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, do you think fracking can ever be beneficial if it can be done safely?

Wendy: No. There is no middle ground when it comes to fracking because no matter what you do it requires explosions. The amount of water and chemicals used is staggering, and that water is permanently polluted. The industry talks about being able to recycle or contain the wastewater that comes out of fracking, but if they treat the water it is only so that it can be used again for fracking, and eventually it becomes so contaminated that it has to be deposited into injection wells. No matter what they tell you about sealing those wells, they are going to leak. Are the companies going to take responsibility for the leakage 50, 100 years down the line when the boom goes bust? We’ve seen this happen with oil extraction; companies just abandon wells when they run dry, leaving behind them an ecological disaster zone. Years from now the industry will have gotten all the gas out of this place, the wells will be abandoned, and we will be left with a wasteland with cancers, birth defects, and all kinds of problems. It’s always the companies that profit during the boom, and ordinary citizens that suffer the consequences after the bust.

The democratic candidates for the Governor of Pennsylvania will tell you that fracking is a godsend for the economy and stricter environmental regulations can ensure that fracking is safe. But the industry is not going to abide by regulations. They always violate them. The DEP documents thousands of violations of environmental regulations from energy companies each year and does nothing about them. Even if companies are fined for their violations they just see it as the cost of doing business. And even if natural gas can be extracted safely without impacts to human health, it is still a fossil fuel. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide in creating climate change. (A recent study from the Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences shows that methane leaks from fracking wells are 1,000 times more than predicted by the industry and EPA.)

Clara: How do you find the time and energy to keep doing this? How do you stay motivated?

Wendy: I don’t spend much time eating or sleeping. I eat on the run or eat while working. I spend all my spare time doing this. Even at my job I take students on toxics tours and to court hearings. Some days I open my computer and there is so much bad news and it feels overwhelming. Then I’ll go for a run. I’ll take care of my dogs and talk to my children. I’ll grade papers for a while to get away from it, and then I get back in. A lot of the time we fight hard to not become demoralized.

For me the real driver is my conscience. I’ve got four kids and they have kids. And I don’t want the world to turn into a shit hole for them. I want to be able to look into the faces of my grandchildren and say, I tried. I have to be a good example for them.

Clara: What would you say to concerned citizens that want to help?

Wendy: The popular response is write to your legislators. But we have tried that and I would be disingenuous if I said that that would make a difference. Legislators, at least in Pennsylvania, are uniformly allied with the big energy companies that contribute to their campaigns. When the enemy is so powerful, the only thing that can sway the tide is critical mass. That can be the number of bodies at a protest, or the number of comments in cyberspace, but we have to get enough people together and speaking out that it reaches a tipping point. If you want to help, find a grassroots organization near you that is working on the ground like Shale Justice or Delaware River Keepers. There is an excellent organization called the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund that empowers communities and citizens to use the legal system to defend their own interests. Get involved or give money to these organizations, and go to hearings where decisions are being made in your community. We have learned from the civil rights and gay rights movements that change only comes when we all work together. And please, stand up to the industries that want to take your land and water; don’t allow fracking on your campus or your community.

 

Wendy Lynne Lee, professor of philosophy at Bloomsburg University and executive board member of the Shale Justice Coalition, writes The Wrench, a blog devoted to the fraught intersection of ecological destruction, social and economic justice, animal welfare, the rights of indigenous peoples, and freedom of movement and expression.

Clara Changxin Fang is author of Residenceonearth.net, a sustainability blog. She currently lives in Devon, Pennsylvania.

For a great infographic on the mechanism and dangers of fracking, go to http://www.dangersoffracking.com/ 

 

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