Delco nuns challenge Marcellus gas giants

Gov. Rendell and the Pennsylvania General Assembly may have given natural-gas drillers in the state's Marcellus Shale a free ride, suspending a threatened tax, in hopes of encouraging jobs.

But activist investors say they're trying to pick up the slack. A Boston-based coalition of environmentally-oriented investors, including the New York State Common Fund and a lot of small, specialized, and Christian investment groups, said yesterday they'll use their shares in ExxonMobil Corp. and other publicly-traded Marcellus drillers to ask corporate officers to  "increase transparency" about chemical and wastewater used in drilling, and to use less less-polluting methods, during the current shareholder proxy and annual-meeting season.

Among the coalition members are the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, a group of around 500 teachers and nurses based in Aston.  Why?: I asked Sister Nora Nash, their Director of Corporate and Social Responsibility.

"I read, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, about what's happening in our state," she told me, slowly and quietly. "I'm really appalled by the fact the State of Pennsylvania has allowed so many gas drilling companies to come into this state and exploit the Marcellus Shale before we have an opporutnity to fully understand what's going on. We're really concerned about the impact on health and on drinking water."

It's not like they're drilling in Aston. But the sisters "are concerned citizens. Our motherhouse is located in this State."  So what do the sisters want? "We signed a resolution asking Chesapeake Energy to provide transparency around the impact of their operations and the risks associated with gas drilling." They're waiting to hear if the Securities and Exchange Commission will put the resolution on this year's proxy ballot.

"I also wrote to the Marathon Oil Co. They did respond, but they still didn't give us information on what chemicals they were using in order to produce the (rock-) fracturing fluids" used in Marcellus drilling. Yes, she's read Marathon's annual report. "It does not provide the level of public disclosure and transparency" that would protect the public, Sister told me.

Did she call Aston's State Sen., Dominic Pileggi, who's also top dog in the State Senate? His brother's a priest, after all. "I know. He tells me these are all small companies and they're trying to help small business. But that's not satisfactory. There are actually very large companies drilling here. This is a serious concern."