By Ted Williams
Earth hadn’t seen its first dinosaur when an enormous river system finished dumping its sediments over what is now Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southern New York State, western Maryland, and eastern Ohio. In the 350 million years or so that followed, other sediments piled up on the delta, sometimes to depths of 8,000 feet. As the river’s organic leavings were compressed and heated, hydrocarbons proliferated. Today the 48,000-square-mile Marcellus shale formation contains one of the largest known gas deposits in the United States.
Measured in immediate dollars and without subtracting the real costs of extraction, the windfall is dazzling. A Penn State study that does exactly this predicts that Marcellus gas will inflate Pennsylvania’s economy by at least $8 billion in just 2010. Farmers are now signing away mineral rights—for as much as $5,500 per acre, then getting royalties as high as 20 percent on the gas recovered.
That news would be better if Marcellus gas was recovered in a regulated, responsible fashion and with coordinated resource-agency oversight. After all, natural gas is the least polluting of all fossil fuels. It can even be rendered into cleaner-burning forms of gasoline and diesel fuel. And as a replacement for coal it has the potential to slow global warming because it releases only half as much carbon. But because the technology to extract the gas is younger than the 21st century, no one yet knows how to do it without simultaneously sacrificing the forests, waters, fish, and wildlife that, over time, are worth far more than any finite energy fix. That’s why New York State has placed a moratorium on Marcellus drilling while it struggles to devise effective regulations.
And that’s why some officials in Ohio, Maryland, and West Virginia are scrambling to get protections in place before the onslaught. So far they haven’t had much success. In an effort invoking the image of Oliver Twist requesting seconds on gruel, West Virginia lawmakers twice tried to pass legislation requiring companies merely to alert property owners before they get permits to hack and gouge their land. Both times the gas lobby shouted it down. Such is its stranglehold on the political process.
Almost all the development has been in Pennsylvania, which squats on the main chunk of the deposit. One might suppose that Pennsylvania would proceed cautiously, with 4,600 miles of its streams already contaminated by abandoned mines to the point of becoming lifeless acid seeps and having allowed the timber industry to denude the entire state a century ago. But no. The scene here resembles a wagon race of whooping, whip-flailing homesteaders. In 2008 Pennsylvania issued 476 Marcellus shale deposit drilling permits. In 2009 the figure was 1,984, and the industry expects to acquire 5,200 additional permits in 2010.
It’s not just native ecosystems that are being violated, it’s Pennsylvania’s constitution, which states: “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. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.” What most alarms and outrages fish and wildlife advocates is that the state’s equally alarmed and outraged professional resource managers have been sidelined by big-money politics.
Pennsylvania’s wildest woods and most pristine streams are managed by the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR). This 2.3-million-acre state forest system is among the largest publicly owned pieces of real estate east of the Mississippi River, and it is almost unique among state holdings in that it has been certified as “sustainable” by the Forest Stewardship Council. But in many places the agency can’t protect that sustainability because it doesn’t control mineral rights. In an attempt to marginally protect these areas, the DCNR had been requiring gas companies to sign surface-use agreements. But last May the companies got a state court to end even this.
If the current orgy is allowed to continue and if it becomes a model for the other Marcellus states, vast swaths of the East’s best forests will be fragmented, groundwater and surface water polluted, and fish and wildlife wiped out on a scale that would dwarf the recent tragedy seen in the gas fields of Wyoming, Colorado, and New Mexico.
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