Too much, too soon: From many different angles, this wave has swept the entire Marcellus region by storm and caught most everyone off-guard and unprepared, most especially Pennsylvania. First, blue-collar and middle-class rural citizens of Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier are offered large sums of money for a resource they never knew existed. Then the cash-strapped state government has thousands of acres of public land worth millions in mineral rights, but its agencies are unable to thoroughly regulate, monitor, and enforce the law. Finally, the laws themselves date to the 1950’s and even lack the simple severance tax enacted by every other major gas-producing state. No one was prepared to deal with the onslaught, and as such the stage is set for a land and gas rush reminiscent of our country’s western expansion.

Unknown Consequences: The process of hydraulic fracturing has not been fully studied, and the precise chemicals and the concentrations used in the procedure remain a “trade secret” exempt from the Clean Water act through the Halliburton Loophole. Improperly cased wells in Dimock, PA allegedly caused methane migration into the wells of nearby citizens, and groundwater migration largely remains a mystery, as Secretary Quigley was quick to point out. “There may not be a documented case of groundwater contamination by fracking, yet. I would add the word, yet.”  There is simply not enough known about groundwater migration and fracking’s impact on that to be certain of anything. Yet, the industry and permitting process continues to move on, regardless of this or concerns about habitat fragmentation, the strain of massive water consumption, and many other unexplored factors.

Opportunity Cost? There is no doubt that the United States will benefit greatly from reducing our reliance on imported fossil fuels, and that our environment would benefit from transitioning to the cleanest burning fossil fuel, natural gas. However, the cost of our current direction is a frenzy of men and machines turning the quiet streets and hills of the Appalachian Highlands into an “industrialized forest.” Projects and environmental efforts are being put on hold or overlooked by the DEP and DCNR because they have to concentrate all their restricted resources on this boom. Marcellus play has many valuable things to offer, from jobs and economic stimulation, to energy independence, but there are also many costs that must be considered.

Historic Precedent: This is not the first time Pennsylvania has been graced with an immensely valuable natural resource, but it has suffered the affects of those extractions for decades to follow. Pennsylvania was and still is a coal mining state, but it bears the scars on miles of its streams, and even the West Branch of the Susquehanna River is impaired with some degree of Acid Mine Drainage for as much as 200 miles. Logging followed, wiping out or severely threatening numerous species, increasing the flood hazards along the river, and leaving altered geomorphologic features that are still impacting the region. While we would like to think we have learned from the past, the state budget is in desperate need of funds and the current government has proven unafraid to appropriate these resources purely for political purposes. The gas industry’s presence in Pennsylvania is already unavoidable, and expected to grow exponentially. The conditions are ripe for another boom, but the regulators who should monitor its growth are overwhelmed and there is little promise that they will be receiving any major reinforcements soon.

Ultimately the citizen’s decision: Every step along the way comes back to the informed citizen. For the private landowner, the cost of signing a lease and receiving royalties means constant noise, traffic, and the possibility of environmental damage if something goes wrong. Even if one is protected legally from financial loss, the landscape will not be the same. The DCNR and DEP have not even begun to analyze what will be necessary for reclamation; because the lifetime of wells are so long they will outlive many of the lessees. For the landowner who does not want to lease, you must carefully make your voice heard to elected officials on the subject of compulsory integration. For every citizen of the state, those elected officials need to hear, understand, and represent the opinions of their constituents regarding the Commonwealth’s actions on the Marcellus Shale. Even now that the 2010 elections have passed, the impacts of this boom will be felt for generations and must be treated accordingly.

Can Pennsylvania break its historic tradition of resource extraction and sustainably manage this vast resource? Or will politics and money obscure the long term impacts of this Fourth Boom?

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