Also feeling the pressure of that political agenda, but in a position to be more vocal about the issues than regulators lower in the ranks of state government, John Quigley, Secretary of DCNR, is ultimately responsible for the actions of his overworked and underfunded agency.  From his vantage point at the head of the agency charged with conservation and management of Pennsylvania public lands and natural resources, Quigley says, “the Marcellus play will literally transform the face of Penn’s Woods.” What remains to be seen, is precisely in what way transformation will occur, and if the DCNR is allowed to do its job in this pivotal issue. “Obviously, this is a potential economic boom. It provides an abundant supply of the cleanest burning fossil fuel and it has a lot of upsides to it. It’s making land owners wealthy,” he explains. “But it also brings with it, the risk of great peril.”

Colleague Emily Anderson in the Tioga State Forest observing current development activity.

“A quarter of the state is under lease by the industry, and that is going to change the face of the state, there’s simply no question about it.” Quigley reiterates, “We will surpass Oklahoma probably this year with the second-most active drill-rigs, behind only Texas.” What concerns him is that history has been known to repeat itself, and all the developments of this resource play are very reminiscent of the past. “This is the next wave of resource extraction, and those waves have characterized the state’s history; whether it was the discovery of oil by Drake, the timber industry to fuel the Industrial Revolution, and the discovery of coal.” Despite the economic benefit enjoyed during those years of plenty, there were lasting costs that the people are still paying for. “In every one of those cases, we got wronged and the resource extraction was characterized by private profit and socialized cost.”

Now today, history is on the verge of repeating itself with a well-funded industry buying itself a prominent voice among decision makers, and budget short-falls afflicting the entire machine of government. Already, Governor Rendell has required the DCNR to provide millions dollars to the general fund, such as in the FY2009-10 Oil and Gas Lease Sale. According to the State Forest Environmental Review published on November 9, 2009, the agency was compelled to lease more land “due to projected shortfalls in the Commonwealth budget.” The report goes on to say that, “while the decision to conduct this lease sale was based on legislated requirements to generate bonus bid revenues of $60 million for the inclusion in the FY 2009-10 General Fund, this Oil and Gas Lease Sale conforms to the Bureau’s stated policy and goals.” Grudgingly conceding this mandate, the agency is trying to hold the line now.

“Well…the diversion of money out of the Oil and Gas Fund over the last two years,” Quigley hesitantly begins, “while understandable, and perhaps inevitable given the sheer magnitude of the fiscal crisis, what it was, is in fact the de facto repeal of one of the most effective conservation programs in the United States.” That program, the Oil and Gas Fund, has operated untouched for 55 years, placing all revenue from leasing mineral rights to state forest land at the discretion of the Secretary for use in conservation efforts, flood control measures, or public use related projects. “In total, we have provided the General Fund over the last two years $383 million dollars out of the Oil and Gas Fund…that’s a pretty big bite.”

That money, which otherwise would have been spent on conservation efforts, is now simply helping to balance the budget. “We have managed to retain a small amount of money, but have essentially had to operate the agency with that money,” Quigley laments, “not really conduct the conservation and control projects that are called for by the original enablement legislation.” With slashed aid from the General Fund and a large portion of the Oil and Gas Fund appropriated away, DCNR is “paying the bills” with what money is left over from the extraction of those very same resources. “And that raises a fundamental question. Should the State’s conservation agency depend for its operation budget on resource extraction? Is that sustainable?”

Furthermore, Quigley is concerned that the actions of the General Assembly, (such as voting to cap royalty income to the fund at $50 million, taking the rest away for general purposes) along with the sheer volume of drilling activity, will compromise the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibility. Even in the event the agency receives the full $50 million they are now allowed to access out of the fund, all of that money has to be used to support the operating budget of the agency. “Not to do projects, not to do land protection, not to buy mineral rights, not to fix dams, to do any of that. Just to run the agency.”

Heavy equipment clog the roads, but this is only the beginning of projected activity.

In addition to the funding crisis, the sheer magnitude of the boom will inexorably lead to some unfortunate and damaging accidents, even with the best of precautions and conscientious companies. Regardless of the party at fault, accidents are part of the cost of any large-scale operation that combines hazardous materials, complex equipment and procedures, and human fallibility. Incidents such as a blowout in Clearfield County and cattle in Tioga County exposed to contaminated water leaking from a containment pond have already made the news, but this is only the beginning of the boom. “I have seen estimates anywhere from 100,000 to 600,000 wells that will be drilled over the next 20 years, in Pennsylvania, in the Marcellus play,” Quigley explains. “I know that our lessees strive to do the right thing on public lands, but if everybody is trying to do the right thing, and everyone is obeying all the rules, mistakes and accidents are going to happen. It’s just the odds.”

With so many wells and such a boom of activity, Quigley reiterates that these incidents are bound to happen when so many players are involved. “The question is,” he asks, “how do you prepare for that? From a regulatory standpoint, from an emergency response standpoint, from a planning and proactive standpoint, how do you respond?  How do local municipalities respond? And how does state government respond? … I don’t think we are there yet, in terms of our ability to respond.”

****

The truth, however, is that there is little evidence for a  best-case-scenario world with only the occasional, unavoidable accident. In the past 2½ years, gas drillers have accumulated nearly 1,500 violations, 952 of which have been deemed likely to impact the environment. These violations, tallied by the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association, range from improper plans and violations of PA stream laws to 10 cases of improper well-casing construction (the cause of well contamination in Dimock, PA) and 16 citations for improper blowout prevention (the very same shortcut that caused the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010). Furthermore, these are the violations that under-staffed and over-scheduled inspectors have managed to catch, one can only speculate what goes unseen.

After spending the majority of a summer spent juggling phone calls, emails, maps, reading government documents and the flood of news articles emerging daily regarding the Marcellus Shale, and even pushing a mountain bike up hills and rattling down dusty gravel roads in the heart of drilling country, I cannot get away from the Marcellus Shale, even at home. The house I was raised in also lies in the Marcellus Shale fairway, in the mountains of the westernmost end of Maryland, Garrett County. Given that the northern end of the county where I live is largely focused on recreation at the Wisp Ski Area and Maryland’s largest man-made reservoir, Deep Creek Lake, it’s unlikely that any well heads will be poking up near my backyard in the near future, but the potential is there. In a conversation between the Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources and Pennsylvania’s DCNR, one Maryland official reportedly muttered “Holy s—” under his breath in response to what his Pennsylvanian colleagues had to say about the gas boom.

I believe the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is at the precipice of the next wave in its history of resource extraction. It has not, however, gained so much momentum that we cannot arrest ourselves and look again at the bigger picture. Let the regulatory agencies and the scientists understand exactly what is needed to properly extract the resource. Let the legislature put into effect the laws that will ensure that the lessee, the industry, the government, and the taxpayer all get their fair share of this boom. If the state can enact these decisions in a timely manner, and fully prepare itself with the knowledge and experience from three previous booms, then this time, this fourth boom in the State of Pennsylvania, we can get it right this time. The facts and conclusions I have drawn from a summer of explorations in Tioga County and in Harrisburg on these issues follow:

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