Forced Pooling vs. Organic Farming
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 email@example.com so that we can load the dataset for you.
Do you know of any examples of an organic farm that has lost organic certification because of a mineral lease?
>Dear Anonymous, while I appreciate your thoughtful response, I must respectfully disagree with most of your statements.
1) Of course pollution affects everyone. It was not my intention to point out that if done hastily, drilling could pollute the air, water, and soil. I wanted to know HOW forced pooling would affect organic farmers and how that in turn could affect the rest of us. I feel that most regulations and policy decisions are made without fully considering or understanding how those decisions will affect minorities and vulnerable populations, whether those populations are organic farmers, racial minorities, or people with HIV, for example.
2) Although I was not inaccurate in stating that chemicals are injected into the ground, I understand why you push to have that statement phrased more concisely. I will change it.
3) As for your statement that forced pooling is not forced leasing… I believe we're merely talking semantics here. Of course farmers could protest or refuse to sign, but that does not change the outcome – that the minerals beneath their land would be relinquished for the use of industry. And that is why I raised such questions as what are the health effects of eating contaminated food should a spills or industrial accident occur.
It is not my responsibility to protect gas drilling as an enterprise. The industry has enough resources at hand to do that themselves. As a public health professional it is my duty to protect health at a population level. If this region's political practices and industrial processes cannot function without putting people at risk or considering the needs of vulnerable populations, then I feel we need to be advocates for public health.
You've raised a number of important issues here, but I'm not convinced you've got them sorted out properly or accurately or fairly in this one posting.
For starters, pollution of the land or water is an issue for everybody — organic farmer or not, forced pooling or not, severance tax or not.
But, more to the point, and as someone who deeply respects your university, I press for more precision in your words, and in your arguments, and in your train of thought.
Hydraulic fracturing does not so much inject water and chemicals "into the ground," as it does inject these things (with sand) into the shale. Whether this concoction poses a realistic, unmanageable risk of making it to the groundwater — by whatever channel — that is the question.
Also, forced pooling does not legally or morally translate into forced leasing, any more than the "rule of capture" translates into forced leasing. Land-owning opponents of fossil fuels extraction would always be free to sign nothing, as an act of protest, or of conscience, or of both.
However, having chosen to sign nothing and to do nothing, forced pooling would send those non-participants fair compensation for the drainage of their resource. They can burn the check (which might mean the damn gas company would keep the money!), or send it to charity, or go out and buy a windmill or something.
But, no, they are not entitled to veto — as a minority stakeholder — this one-time-only extraction of this resource.
In some ways, forced pooling is fairer than current PA law, which effectively takes the gas from the holdouts without compensation. Check it out. (Truly, your web site has not yet done a fair job of covering this fascinating chapter of PA legal history.)
But let me ask you this: Are there not any old-school *conservationist* arguments in favor of forced pooling — in favor of efficient, non-wasteful resource extraction?
I think that there are, and that these arguments have been out there — forcefully, correctly, righteously — since the days of Gifford Pinchot.
The only trouble is modern-day environmental thinkers are stuck on an entirely different question. No, it's not about maximum good for least impact, anymore.
Instead, it is, "Goddamnit — how can we beat this thing?"