From Colonel Drake’s discovery of oil in 1859 to the vast cut-over of remaining primary forest, to a little-known offshoot of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Project Plowshares called Project Ketch, which (before it was stopped) would have nuked a cavity in north-central PA for storage of natural gas, Pennsylvania’s rural areas have served as an unwitting consort to America’s insatiable appetite for energy and natural resources.
Recent discoveries in the Marcellus formation (see the National Geographic story, and the Nov 6 New York Times piece) could be seen as a mere continuation of long term trends if the stakes weren’t so high—both for increasing domestic energy production and preserving drinking water supplies in the isolated towns and villages in the swath of sparsely inhabited counties that haven’t been “pristine” for upwards of two centuries.
The ingredients – including mountainous peripheries away from population centers, limited economic activities, and aging populations – mean the temptation to sell out to gas developers is high. A report by Penn State’s Earth and Mineral Sciences College that gas development had already generated $389 million in tax revenues and created more than 44,000 jobs was trumpeted by the industry as an almost irresistible boon for the state.
Outgoing governor Ed Rendell’s last-ditch ban on new drilling permits in state forest land will be easily reversed by the incoming Republic Governor-elect, Tom Corbett. To date, 140,000 acres have been open for leasing since 2008, making the state $400 million in lease payments at about $3,000 an acre. A total of 700,000 acres of state forest land are now available. Do the math: that’s over $2 billion.
In the run-up to the recent across-the-board Republican electoral victories, the Marcellus shale gas issue received prominent attention. Although there was no state ballot question on fracking, Republican candidate Tom Corbett urged increased gas development and promised that the state would not tax proceeds from drilling. By implication he promised no additional regulations, appearing to throw open the door for additional exploration. Corbett’s decisive victory all but ensures that gas development will be stepped up.
Adding partisan insult to environmental injury, Republican mastermind Karl Rove told an appreciative audience in Pittsburgh the day after the election that “Climate is gone” as an issue, and the Republican victories would remove legislative threats to the industry. It should come as no surprise that the gas industry spent heavily in statewide races, reportedly donating $835,000 to Tom Corbett through mid-October.
Corbett’s campaign platform called for a 10 percent across-the-board cut in the state budget. Now-Governor-elect, he will very likely add environmental protection to his list of items to be reduced or flat-lined when the new Republican-dominated General Assembly convenes.
What does this mean for Pennsylvania’s fragile aquifers across the Marcellus Formation? Cabot Oil and Gas of Houston paid $240,000 in fines last year for contaminating the water wells in Dimock, in Susquehanna County. It also signed three consent decrees agreeing to provide water treatment and not to challenge state findings that it is responsible; however when the state said Cabot would have to pay the cost of piping the water the six miles from nearby Montrose, Cabot did an about-face and said that it signed those consent decrees under duress.
The gas drilling process uses toxic chemicals like ethylbenzene and toluene, which are mixed with sand and millions of gallons of water to extract the natural gas from the shale. Most of these toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are left in the ground, or end up in groundwater which actually lies above the fracking areas, making the mixing of toxins and drinking water almost inevitable.
The last stop in all-out drilling in northeastern PA could be the EPA’s launch of the first comprehensive study of environmental impacts of shale gas drilling. But with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania facing a serious budget shortfall just as federal stimulus money to the states begins to tail off, the Feds will have a fight on their hands if they try to mess with the Keystone State’s new revenue stream.