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Drill Baby Drill, But Do it Right

“Amazing,” “exciting, “energy independence,” “clean energy,” “economic growth” were all buzz words thrown around yesterday at the 2010 Marcellus Summit held at the Penn Stater and sponsored by Penn State University. The Marcellus Shale, by some accounts, has enough natural gas to supply the USA for 100 years, make the USA less reliant on foreign oil, decrease our reliance on dirty carbon-based sources like oil and coal and rejuvenate rural communities in PA.

That is quite a tall prospect, and the sentiment at the conference was one of harmony amongst all stake-holders, which might allow this amazing and exciting prospect to come to fruition.

The Marcellus Shale is a large deposit of natural gas located throughout PA, excluding the Harrisburg and Philly areas. Explained simply, companies drill down about 7,000 feet, and then go horizontal for about a mile, ‘frack’ or dislodge the gas deposits through small explosive charges, pump in high pressure sand and water, and voilà, out comes natural gas. Centre County ranks 8th in number of permits issued state-wide, with just 108 permits. This compares markedly with Bradford County, which is top in the state, with 859 drilling permits.

There is tremendous potential for economic growth, with the creation of thousands of jobs not just for engineers, but for diverse groups like lawyers and finance associates. There is the risk though that the state government would impose an oppressive tax on gas extraction. John Felmy, the Chief Economist for the American Petroleum Institute, characterized this as an “extreme negative,”  in light of PA’s high corporate income tax and capital stock and franchise tax.

Nonetheless, he noted that businesses do want to pay their fair share. PSU students would have the potential for improved employment prospects post-graduation, internship opportunities and research funding if this industry is not crippled from the beginning. Terry Pegula, who recently donated $88 million dollars to PSU, made his money in natural gas extraction.

There is some concern, which according to Congressman Tim Murphy is based on “misinformation campaigns… and pseudoscience,”  that the fracking process could be hazordous to the water supply, as exemplified by the recent documentary Gasland. However, Scott Perry of the PA Department of Environmental Protection does not anticipate any problems with the water supply, stating in a recent article in Vanity Fair “there has never been any evidence of fracking ever causing direct contamination of fresh groundwater in Pennsylvania or anywhere else.” Nonetheless, there have been rare accidents, exemplified by the travails of of Dimock, PA.

Given a holistic evaluation, it would seem that natural gas drilling is less risky to the environment than other energy extraction methods, including deep water drilling; incidents tend to be very localized, with well-contained damage, according to Gregory Staple of the American Clean Skies Foundation. Another concern is that local infrastructure, mainly roads, will not be properly maintained in response to the damage caused by increased truck traffic; PA already has 6,000 structurally deficient bridges.

While some may view the natural gas industry as “rapacious and irresponsible” as suggested rhetorically in a video shown at the conference, this is probably the best opportunity PA has for economic growth. As with any burgeoning industry, there will be some growing pains, but these can and must be mitigated.

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