Recreation and Industry meet, but can they coexist?

“Go slow” (as in cautiously) rather than “No” might better define the views of most Tioga County residents with concerns about the impact of drilling on their Big Woods. Away from the noise of the town and the trucks, with no sign of drilling anywhere, Leon Kocher reclines in the living room of the house he built here in 2007. Deep inside a grove of fully-grown pine trees, his land has been leased for drilling, but not without significant limitations and qualifications. The company that he has leased his gas rights to only has the rights to extract from the Marcellus Shale, and not to disturb the surface of his land for any reason. His lease bears significant protection clauses in place in the event of any problem. Maybe his well-drafted legal protection is unnecessary and over-cautious, but Kocher is not taking any chances.

A retired business consultant from Bethlehem Steel who lived in the same kind of corporate world as the industry that has moved in next door, Kocher feels he understands the big-industry mindset in a way that he fears most locals do not. He is concerned about a lack of understanding about legal issues regarding leasing from an industry eager to develop the phenomenal resource beneath the locals’ feet. “Up here…they love their guns and their bibles–and let me tell you something, there is nothing wrong with that,” he says. Outside, birds flutter around feeders, while several pairs of binoculars rest near the window, and a spotting scope sits pointed serenely at the deep, verdant woods out back. Kocher continues, “When you drive around this community on a Sunday morning, there’s little white wooden churches all over. They’re not very big, they’re clapboard outside, and the parking lots are full.” He pauses, then adds with a smile, “And I just love the people here.” Yet, paradoxically, he adds that it is not always easy communicating across the differences of culture and upbringing: “They’re not too friendly sometimes.”

Kocher has used his corporate experience to attempt to coordinate his neighbors’ leases, in order to obtain the most financially beneficial agreement for the land-owner, with as much legal protection as possible. However, he has had difficulty impressing the importance of negotiating as a block, and has had several individuals jump at the first offer without negotiation. One individual, already in a lease, innocently asked Kocher, “How do we change that 12.5 percent?” referring to the royalties clause in his binding lease, as if it could be changed to increase his benefits.

But when it comes to the government, Kocher has his doubts. “Don’t assume that any government agency at any level is going to take care of you, never assume,” he emphasizes. “The county has no control over any of this, none at all…they just always say whenever somebody talks about pollution of wells and so on. ‘Well that’s the EPA, we don’t have anything to do with that.’” Taking cues from the past, from Black Lung in the coal mines to the personal loss of a brother-in-law due to work-related asbestos exposure, Kocher says: “Every time you see that, ten-fifteen years, twenty years later, you see in the newspaper and on TV, everybody from political people, to leaders, to the minister in church; everybody will say, ‘But we didn’t know at the time!”’ Identifying himself as an advocate for his working-class neighbors and speaking out of the concern that no one is looking out for workers either, Kocher is emphatic: “This time, we should know.”

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Of those who should know, a state employee working directly on issues related to the Marcellus Shale boom confides just how little is actually known about what is going on. After several weeks of email correspondence, I am finally able to meet in person with a source who must remain anonymous due to potential repercussions. “I just don’t feel comfortable that I can really speak out,” the employee explains. “I don’t know that I would get fired, but I just feel like in our department we have a history of catering to gas and really not saying no; they basically get what they want when they come to us.”

Beside bias toward the industry evident in state government, according to this source, there are institutional protocols that restrict direct and open observations about the problem by regulators. “If I would try to write an article about how Marcellus is going to impact [my agency] or our lands, the governor’s office basically censors it.” There are individuals within the agency who have and are continuing to speak out concerning their agency’s response to policy and developments in the Marcellus play, but their voices are limited. “For example, someone like Mary Jo White (State Senator, R-21) can put an article in the newspaper, or an editorial in the newspaper about how she feels, how great gas is. But I can’t refute that as a representative of  [my agency].” In point of fact, the entire agency is effectively silenced for the most part, because “we are not allowed to put out any articles…saying how we feel.”

Silenced, or at least muffled, staff opinions reflect primarily on the decision to lease larger percentages of public lands for natural gas drilling, and the subsequent affect it has had on regulators. “I think most people, given the choice to do it or not, would say, ‘no, we should never have done this.’ Basically a gun was put to our head, and now we have to do it.” Already the agency’s resources and manpower are heavily strained, but every indication is that Pennsylvania will not even reach the peak of activity for another couple years.

A vast majority of regulatory funding and personnel hours are being siphoned away to deal exclusively with the Marcellus Shale, and even at that, existing regulators are unable to keep up with everything that should be done. “Gas has gone from taking up very little of my time to well over 90 percent of my time. And I have other duties too,” my contact explains with a sense of frustration. “I don’t get to see all the things that I’d like to see, I don’t get to go out in the field, it would eat up all my time,” even with limited resources to begin with in pre-boom circumstances.

Currently, the governor has agreed to a moratorium on any further leasing of state lands, but as Governor-elect Corbett’s new administration will be arriving in January 2011, state agencies are putting out information and reports that emphasize why no further drilling should occur on public land. “We are trying to position ourselves so people get the news, so we are not forced to do [it] – this is why we don’t want to do another lease,” my anonymous source said.  “I don’t think this should have happened, on this scale on public land. We’re basically turning our state forests into industrial parks.”

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