The Fourth Boom: Drilling into the Big Woods

A search for truth by bicycle through Pennsylvania’s northern forestlands in the Marcellus Shale drill zone ends up in the halls of Commonwealth government in Harrisburg. Information in the end proves more elusive—but potentially more valuable–than the gas deposits themselves deep below.

The road I am on has done nothing for the past twenty miles but burrow deeper and deeper into a lush green world. This twisting township road enters Tioga County from the southeast and winds deep into a verdant forest, marked also on the map as a green space as it is the heart of the Pine Creek Gorge State Park, the Grand Canyon of the East. Under the clear skies of early June, the sharp repetitive crack of a medium caliber firearm echoes through the hills from somewhere near a cluster of small hunting cabins. In this rural corner of the world, all I have seen thus far has been lush and pristine, relatively untouched in the century that has passed since these hills were deforested in Pennsylvania’s logging boom. But only a few miles away in either direction history is preparing to repeat itself.

In the past 160 years, William Penn’s Woods (which lent their name in Latin form to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania) have been probed and stripped of their natural resources in a series of “boom and bust” cycles that defined many of the cultural regions of the Susquehanna watershed covering the center, north-central and northeast parts of the state. Bituminous coal was discovered in Tioga County during the late 1700’s, but only with the completion of the Corning & Blossburg railroad around 1840 did it become fully available for exploitation. Several decades later the lumber boom swept through, stripping the hills of white pine for lumber and hemlock for the acidic bark used in tanning leather. In those days the towns flourished, work was plentiful, and wealth abounded, but only until the mines closed and the trees were all gone. In the absence of any energetic economic activity in the meantime, the region languished except for its gentler moving recreational tourism sector in gradually restored woods and waterways.

But waiting approximately a mile beneath the surface of the Appalachian Plateau, was a layer of methane-bearing rock that in the early twenty-first-century would bring the economy of Tioga County and the rest of Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier of topmost counties back to a boil.  Known as the Marcellus Shale, it was once fine sediment at the bottom of an ancient paleo-ocean, containing high concentrations of organic materials that have been heated and pressed over the millennia. With America’s demand for cleaner energy from domestic sources, it is now poised to turn Penn’s Woods into the “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas,” as originally described by Jan Jarett, President of PennFuture.

In the few short years since it has become economically and technologically viable to extract this natural gas, the energy industry has wasted no time starting a land rush all too familiar in the history of boom-and-bust economies. As if it will rot away or vanish from where it has lain untouched for millions of years, the industry has been buying leases for mineral rights from every property available. Some companies have even driven themselves to the point of near bankruptcy, as in the case of East Resources, now subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

Orebed Road, Tioga County. Heavy traffic on a single-lane gravel road.

The Marcellus Shale Natural gas “play,” as all this activity is known, has come about under circumstances so exceptional that Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation of Natural Resources (DCNR) Secretary John Quigley and others have dubbed it, “a perfect storm.” The opportunity for economic gain from development of the Marcellus Shale came at precisely the same time as the deepest impacts of the Great Recession were hitting Pennsylvania and its budget. The financial boost offered to the state by the discovery of natural gas, particularly with 1.5 million acres of State Forest land (71% of total State Forest holdings) above the shale, is hardly trivial. But as the dust begins to rise from the local roads and wellpads, citizens have begun to wonder what the Big Woods will be like after this boom.

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