By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Communications Specialist, Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC), University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH); and Doctorate of Public Health (DrPH) Student, GSPH
Shale gas drilling involves injecting large amounts of high-pressured water and various chemicals into the shale layer to release the natural gas trapped there.
Although there are some obvious economic benefits to producing energy in our own country, how will shale gas drilling and forced pooling affect farmers who are applying for or trying to keep their organic farm certifications? Do the communities burdened with gas drilling truly ‘reap’ the rewards?
Organic Certification for Farms
Organic farming means that farmers must avoid using most synthetic chemicals when producing their crops, such as synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, sewage, organisms that have been genetically modified, or exposing food to high doses of radiation. No synthetic chemicals could have been used on the farmland for a few years. Organic farmers are subject to periodic inspections, as well. (For more information about the benefits and costs associated with eating organic food, check out this website.)
Currently, PA is one of the only remaining states in the U.S. where active natural gas drilling is occurring that has not enacted any kind of severance tax on the industry. Keep in mind, however, that while a severance tax is being considered in Harrisburg, the natural gas industry is lobbying to have forced pooling tied to any severance tax legislation. (The likelihood of either proposal being passed before a new term begins is highly unlikely at this point, however.)
Forced pooling would require people to enter into lease agreements in an area where the majority of other lease-owners have leased to a natural gas drilling company. This would be advantageous to the industry because it makes leasing more orderly and allows them to more easily access areas where the mineral rights have been fragmented. While this could reduce the environmental footprint of drilling in some ways, it could be incredibly problematic for organic farmers whether they own their mineral rights or not. At least without forced pooling, organic farmers have more of a choice about whether they will lease their mineral rights.
The problem, therein, is that any violation on the part of industry that pollutes the land, air, or soil on or near a farm – especially an organic farm – could have serious repercussions for the farmer and the farm’s economic viability.
|PA Wastewater spills by county|
|Frac pond and lining|
And when you add in the forced pooling concept, the problem becomes more complex.
Does a spill or blowout on the farm destroy the organic certification, and if so for how long? Who is responsible for the economic hardships of such an incident? What are the public health implications of consuming food that has been contaminated either with the chemicals used to fracture the shale or the constituents of the wastewater that returns to the surface and is held in large ponds? (Wastewater can contain heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, total dissolved solids, and is high in salinity.) For example, the Department of Agriculture quarantined several PA cattle in July that came into contact with one of the holding ponds in order to reduce the risk of those chemicals being passed along through the food chain.
I acknowledge that there can be benefits to drilling for farmers in this blog post. However, from our experience, many farmers are only being educated by the industry about the benefits to leasing. E.g. “You can have your cake and eat it, too.” But as our one friend put it, “What are the odds that the cake cannot be eaten?”
To find an organic farm near you, visit this site. If you have geo-located data showing where organic farms are located, add it to the DataTool or contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can load the dataset for you.