Recently, I attended a meeting of the Rural Sociological Society where researchers from Penn State presented their findings on Marcellus Shale well drilling in rural Pennsylvania counties. One of the researchers tracked how drilling issues have been framed in the media and in public discourse. Even though the majority of Pennsylvania's Marcellus wells are in rural communities, the conversation rarely speaks of it as a rural issue. Along with the natural gas industry and landowners, there is a third party whose concerns need to honored. I speak of the rural communities themselves, as served by their civic leaders, schools, congregations, hospitals, emergency personnel, and land management agencies.
I spent the majority of my career as a pastor in rural communities and came to respect the long memories of those whom I served. When the traditional oil industry swept through Pennsylvania's northwest, it brought jobs. It also spoiled water wells and streams throughout the region. Anyone who hikes or hunts in McKean County can't help but notice the ubiquitous rusted pipes, old shacks, oily tanks, and silent oil equipment. Like the logging boom before it, oil production initially expanded the region's employment and population. The few golden years were followed by a long uncertain period when the prosperity of each community rose and fell with the price of a barrel of oil. In the end, the Pennsylvania crude bubble collapsed, leaving many small towns worse off than before.
One difference with Marcellus Shale gas production is that employment opportunities and local wealth distribution occurs almost entirely in the initial well-drilling phase. Once a gas well is in place, it requires little oversight. The industry quickly moves its expenditures on to another location. Research done at Penn State (Diane McLaughlin, et al.) is interesting in this respect. They compared those Pennsylvania counties which had a high number of Marcellus wells drilled from 2006 to 2010 to those counties without wells and found that drilling failed to reduce unemployment and poverty rates. While many leaders in rural communities remain optimistic, I read reason for caution; if the wells drilled so far haven't benefited your community, they aren't likely to in the future. Already many school administrators are experiencing difficulties planning and providing education for the employee families of this very transient of industry. Add to this concerns about affordable housing and the availability of social services. This would not be so bad if a larger percentage of the gas royalty money was being returned to rural communities. Unfortunately, only about half of the land in Marcellus Shale counties is owned by the residents of those counties.
On the positive side, I am thankful that cheaper natural gas is reducing our carbon footprint by encouraging the conversion of power plants away from coal. In the1940's, a boom of strip coal mines created jobs for rural folk in the center of the state. Unlike Marcellus Shale wells, strip mines openly devastate the land, making it unusable unless it is reclaimed. The lesson learned by that generation of rural community leaders sixty years ago, was how difficult it is to draft and enforce effective ecological policies and require sufficient bonds to hold energy companies accountable for the harm they do.
Today we need to again protect our rural communities from exploitation. Many of the dangers of full scale Marcellus Shale production are unknown. Putting aside for now, the concerns of the extremists who are opposed to any drilling, I do not see among our current politicians the political will, integrity, or legal intelligence to do Marcellus Shell production right. Further, recent State legislation actively transfers the authority for Marcellus concerns away from local entities, such as, county conservation districts. Those who have memories and "skin in the game", are no longer being invited to the table.
Finally, there is a sound that haunts me. Often when you drive rural roads in Western Pennsylvania, you hear the creaking, lonesome, sound of an oil well running unattended in the night. Low production oil wells are often simply left on a timer. It has become such a familiar sound that no one questions it. Today's Marcellus shell wells are exponentially more complex. They demand oversight and respect. Yet, neither the PA Department of Energy permitting process nor the state government in it's budgeting for local emergency services, have demonstrated such foresight. Perhaps, the issue has already been placed on a timer.