Just when you think the activities of the Big Energy business, and their GOP allies, can’t get any creepier, this happens.
Last year, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett suggested offsetting college tuition fees by leasing parts of state-owned college campuses to natural gas drillers, more than a few Pennsylvanians were left blinking and rubbing their eyes. But it was no idle threat: After quietly moving through the state Senate and House, this week the governor signed into law a bill that opens up 14 of the state’s public universities to fracking, oil drilling, and coal mining on campus.
Legalizing fracking on college campuses really shouldn’t come as a surprise though. The Republicans (with plenty of help from too many gutless Democrats) have never liked higher education, so have made it their mission to starve the system for years. Now that they’ve gutted the budget for universities, they try to make it sound as though fracking is somehow the reasonable way to solve the budget problems.
OK, so who is going to pay for the cleanup? Who will pay when students and faculty get sick? What happens when the water in the schools becomes polluted and catches on fire?
Pennsylvania has been among the early adopters to giving a free ride to the fracking industry, well before a Republican took over as governor. Now they’re among the early adopters and policies that are even more of a giveaway and more bizarre than ever.
In light of Pennsylvania’s convenient blindness to the Sandusky scandal, you would think someone there would think a bit more about college students at state schools but that’s not the case. Welcome to Pennsylvania where Big Energy writes the law.
Environmentalists and educators are concerned that fracking and other resource exploitation on campus could leave students directly exposed to harms like explosions, water contamination, and air pollution. They’re also worried oil and gas development would leave campuses ruined for future generations. It doesn’t help that Pennsylvania has a lousy regulation record, with a tally of violations that have increased more than fourfold since 2005. According to the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center, Pennsylvania drilling companies racked up a total of 3,355 violations of environmental law between 2008 and 2011, 2,392 of which posed a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities. Meanwhile, in 2010, the state left 82,602 active wells go uninspected, more than all the active wells in New York and Ohio put together.
“Students need a place to learn and grow, but they’re being forced to jeopardize their health to get that education,” says Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper, a local water quality watchdog. “This has been a big giveaway by the state of Pennsylvania to drilling interests, and it’s at the expense of students and the public.”
Still, that giveaway deal can look awfully sweet, especially when the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) has been struggling under Governor Corbett’s draconian budget cuts. In 2011, Corbett, who received $1.3 million from the oil and gas industry in his 2010 election, slashed funding for PASSHE’s 14 schools by 18 percent. Though he briefly floated the idea of cutting another 20 percent from the system in February, cuts remained at the previous year’s levels in the final draft of budget deliberations. That same budget also included a $1.7 billion tax break for Shell in order to coax a refinery into Western PA.