Pittsburgh, PA Says No to Fracking

The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania City Council received a standing ovation yesterday when it unanimously voted to ban natural gas drilling, including the controversial process called hydraulic fracturing, within the city limits. Pittsburgh’s mayor now has 10 days to decide whether or not to sign the ordinance, which would make Pittsburgh the fist city in Pennsylvania to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The ordinance was drafted by the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF) at the invitation of Councilman Bill Peduto. Councilman Doug Shields sponsored the ordinance, saying hydraulic fracturing could return the city to its polluted past. Others on Council cited similar health and environmental concerns in voting to approve the ban.

Pennsylvania, which sets atop the natural gas rich Marcellus shale, has become ground zero in the debate surrounding fracking. Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act – deemed by fracking opponents the “Halliburton Loophole.” As a result, frackers don’t have to disclose the chemicals that make up their fracking fluids.

Pennsylvania has been at the center of a fracking boom since 2008, and drilling proponents constantly tout the jobs and other economic growth the industry has brought to the state. But environmentalists are concerned that those chemicals could make their way into water supplies. In Pennsylvania, fracking has been named a suspect in several instances of water contamination.

Recently, drillers have been eyeing Pittsburgh. According to the University of Pittsburgh Center for Social and Urban Research, more than 300 acres – around 1 percent – of the land in Pittsburgh, has been leased for drilling, though no drilling is currently taking place.

According to a report in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, members of Pittsburgh’s City Council were not swayed by the contention that drilling in the city offered economic advantages, which some said would be outweighed by environmental and health costs. “There’s going to be a lot of jobs for funeral homes and hospitals,” Council President Darlene Harris. “That’s where the jobs are. Is it worth it?”

Despite the 9-0 vote of the City Council, the Pittsburgh fracking ban is far from a done deal. The city’s mayor, Luke Ravenstahl, has not said if he would be willing to sign the ordinance, though he has said he opposed the ban in the past. According to the Post-Gazette, if Ravenstahl were to veto the ordinance, six votes on City Council would be needed to override the veto.

Even if it becomes law, the drilling industry could challenge it in court. According to the Post-Gazette, the gas industry could argue that the ban conflicts with the state’s authority to regulate gas production.

The sponsor of the fracking ban did not appear to be put off by the threat of legal action. “With this vote we are asserting the right of the city to make critical decisions to protect our health, safety, and welfare,” Councilman Shields said yesterday. “We are not a colony of the state and will not sit quietly by as our city gets drilled. We encourage communities across the region to take this step and join with us to elevate the rights of communities and people over corporations.”

Help filing claims and other legal assistance for victims of water contamination due to fracking is available at the Water Contamination Center.

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