In the meantime, Jim, Chelsea and I were in a hurry. We hopped in Chelsea’s car and drove to Penn College’s North Campus to attend a public meeting with “the suits”—the Tioga County Development Corporation. At “the bank meeting,” as some of the forty-some attendees (many of whom were, in fact, bankers) referred to it, I held a 360 million year old disc of the Marcellus shale in my hand. It was the size of a hockey puck, and weighed about three pounds. I traced the scratches along its edges with my fingernail as the conversation began to move into different kinds of abstractions —projections of industry profits, royalty payments, job growth—economic abstractions stretching fifteen, twenty-five, fifty, seventy-five years into the future. These felt more concrete than the idea of “quality of life” because they were accompanied by PowerPoint slides.

I sat in the darkness, holding a chunk of the unimaginable past, and looked at glowing pie charts and bar graphs. I looked at a different vision of the future than the one people at the Partnership For Community Health tried to imagine. Remarking on a recent dip in unemployment statistics in Tioga County, one man observed that during this period of national recession, “people in Harrisburg are looking at our county and wondering what we’re doing right.”

At the bank meeting, most of the people seemed enthusiastic—even giddy—about these economic projections. Jack Showers, the representative for East Resources who passed around the disc of shale as a visual aid for his engaging PowerPoint presentation, suggested that the “potential is basically unlimited” for natural gas development. The conversation buzzed around topics such as CNGs (cars running on natural gas), the Utica shale (the layer of shale located 2000 feet beneath the Marcellus, which may contain even more natural gas), the new Comfort Inn going up in the county, the sudden ease of getting a job (“I tell my clients all that’s needed is a strong back and a weak mind—a willingness to put in 12 hour days, 7 days a week,” said a CareerLink representative), the recent increase in the local availability of various styles of steel-toed boots, the need for new financial-services products to help people invest their royalty riches. The thought of unlimited potential was so intoxicating people talked and speculated long after it should have been lunchtime; a member of the catering staff had to come and tap one of the suits’s shoulders to remind him of the buffet waiting in the hallway.

But are these projections of the future more real because they are more quantifiable than ideas like “long-term sustainability” and “quality of life?” Are these economic projections likely to connect with the conditions of life? A 2004 IMF report found that the economic potential of petroleum development in Africa was consistently overestimated prior to development; the “persistent underachievement of development goals has come to be seen as ‘the resource curse’” throughout that region (62). Since conditions in sub-Saharan Africa are obviously different than those in Pennsylvania, I asked Tom Kinnaman, a Bucknell University economics professor, and my friend Morgan (not her real name), a drill-site geologist working in nearby Lycoming County, to comment on the long-term prospects for drilling in the Marcellus shale.

Tom Kinnaman recently completed a review of the economic impact literature written to guide people—such as state legislators or members of the Tioga County Development Corporation—as they make decisions about how to respond to the development of the shale. He told me:

My general conclusion was that… the reports overestimate the economic impacts. These reports were almost universally funded by the industry, and the audience to those reports was state governments, legislatures, governors who are considering something called a severance tax on the gas and so their attempt is to write these things saying this is a golden goose, if you tax it, you’re killing the goose ….. but the problem is that the authors themselves are mostly PhD research economists who should know better. It’s not independent research at all, the work would not in the slightest be fit for academic publication….I think there are state legislators and governors who consider this to be credible economic work, scientific as opposed to opinion based.

Professor Kinnaman conducted this research as a public service; he fears that legislators, developers, and even small-business owners will make poor decisions based on inaccurate information. For instance, he fears that a hotel owner, reading these inflated projections, might borrow money to add another wing—only to have it sit empty.

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