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President hears, but speaks no fracking

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Posted: Monday, August 26, 2013 6:30 am

SCRANTON, Pa. — Republicans were talking about it. Democrats were talking about it.

Maya K. van Rossum briefly shouted down the president of the United States to talk about it.

It was President Obama himself who seemed disinclined to discuss natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania during a visit to Lackawanna College on Friday afternoon, sticking to his education reform proposals, the economy and even taking a jab at Republicans over his health care reform program.

He uttered nary a word on fracking — formally known as hydraulic fracturing, a process used to extract shale gas — during the Scranton stop, despite legions of anti-drilling activists who turned out at his speaking engagements in New York and, finally, Pennsylvania.

“Mr. President, are you going to protect our future by banning fracking?” van Rossum shouted from an upper balcony near the end of Obama's 32-minute speech.

Obama did not respond, but paused slightly before rallying toward a closing statement about the strength of Americans to move ahead in troubled times, including support for better and better-funded higher education.

The cheers mounted, applause echoed and Obama concluded. Van Rossum, it seemed, had been shut down, and along with her the hopes of gas drilling opponents, many of whom hoped at least they might convince the president to put pressure on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to reopen its investigation into natural gas drilling and drinking water contamination around Dimock, in Susquehanna County.

For van Rossum, a Bryn Mawr resident and member of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, it was anything but a loss.

“While I certainly didn't want to be rude to the president, and I approve of his (education) message, I think it was something I had to do,” said van Rossum, who traveled from the Philadelphia suburbs to bring her message to Obama in person.

“He heard me. He looked up,” she said.

What, if anything, Obama will do with the message remains to be seen. The Democratic president has been taking fire from environmental activists and others in his own party who oppose the controversial practice for fear of potential ecological and health problems. Republicans, meanwhile, feel he has not gone far enough in his support of gas drilling, which they say will lead to economic revitalization in many depressed areas and help foster the nation's energy independence.

Even before he set foot in The Electric City, Obama was bombarded on all sides Friday morning, from legislators, party officials and activists seeking to shift the day's discussion from education to energy.

U.S. Rep. Tom Marino, R-Lycoming Township, criticized what he saw as a “lame-duck bus tour” and urged the president against taking any action that would stymie drilling in the state.

“Now, Pennsylvania Democrats are even pushing for a ban on natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, which would be disastrous for the 10th District,” Marino said. “The president should show some leadership and admonish the Pennsylvania Democratic Party for their job-killing stance that only would further hurt the struggling national economy.”

State Republican Chairman Rob Gleason said the Pennsylvania Democratic Party “is trying to kill Marcellus Shale, and the fact that they'd be willing to destroy the thousands of jobs created by the industry to cater to the left-wing extremists is alarming.”

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party responded with a critique of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett's drilling policies.

“Tom Corbett has insisted on gutting environmental protections while taking millions in donations and unreported, unethical gifts from the gas industry,” the party said in a statement. “Tom Corbett has little room to talk about job creation since he sank Pennsylvania from 7th in the nation in job creation to 49th. It is no wonder that Republicans from all ends of the spectrum … are in open revolt against his administration.”

While politicians continued their verbal jousting, demonstrators from across Pennsylvania and New York gathered outside Lackawanna College to press their case; they included members of the Dallas-based Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition from Luzerne County and Susquehanna County residents who shared personal stories of the damage they say fracking has done to their water and their lives.

Among them was Silver Lake Township resident Craig Stevens, a sixth-generation landowner who said he led the original movement to alert local EPA officials to contamination after 100,000 gallons of toxic liquids were dumped there.

Stevens felt it was “disingenuous” for Obama not to mention or acknowledge the fracking issue in Pennsylvania, considering that the practice is actually underway here, unlike New York, where it has been subject to a de facto five-year moratorium.

“That disturbs me,” Stevens said.

Stevens also was disappointed in the region's congressional delegation, members of which, he said, have either not taken the time to visit affected areas or toured in the company of drilling officials. Stevens said he and others would continue to press to have EPA chief Gina McCarthy focus on the issue and come to Dimock — hoping that would “shame” elected officials, including Marino and even U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Scranton Democratto see the sites..

“Would I come to Dimock? Sure. I've been to Dimock. I'd go there,” Casey told The Times Leader.

The senator also said that he thinks it's important to balance the economic opportunities presented by gas extraction against protecting the environment. Asked about whether the EPA should reopen a probe of conditions in Dimock, Casey said supported the EPA doing a thorough job, but said he was not yet familiar enough with the issue to say what course of action he thinks the agency should take with respect to Dimock.

Casey did say he supports Article I Section 27 of the state constitution, which states that “the people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”

“It's not a 'maybe,' it's a 'shall,'” Casey said.

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