Marcellus rush echoes history of recklessness
Pa. has seen plenty of destructive energy extraction.
By Susan Q. Stranahan
The natural gas industry eyed the rugged forests of northern Pennsylvania, eager to exploit their enormous potential. Descending on Harrisburg, the industry’s promoters promised a much-needed economic shot in the arm. The year was 1967.
In hindsight, the plan seems impossibly audacious: Explode a 24-kiloton atomic bomb in the thick shale beneath the Sproul State Forest near State College to create a massive cavern for storing natural gas. Known as Project Ketch, it was a partnership between the Columbia Gas System Service Corp. and the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, which was hungry to find peaceful purposes for nuclear technology. (Another commission brainchild of the era: to nuke its way across Panama to create a second canal.)
Back then, Harrisburg had the red carpet out for any nuclear project, no matter how bizarre, and the proposal caught on. Why not put all that empty forest land to good use? Pennsylvania could cash in big, because the industry and the AEC hoped to detonate as many as 1,000 nuclear bombs to allow gas storage in the Northeast.
While the plan had the blessing of lawmakers from downstream districts along the Susquehanna, the reception wasn’t as enthusiastic upstream. Among those opposed were the residents of Renovo, which was ground zero for Project Ketch. Wouldn’t the forest be harmed? And, by the way, wouldn’t the gas in the cavern be radioactive?
The project’s backers quickly responded that the gas would meet all existing regulations. True, except for one fact: There were no regulations. As news of the plan spread, more than 25,000 Pennsylvanians signed petitions opposing it. Ultimately, the AEC and Columbia backed away from the idea, and Sproul remained nuclear-free.
How different is today’s race to exploit the rich natural gas reserves buried deep in the Marcellus Shale formation stretching across Pennsylvania, including the Sproul State Forest? Not very.
Last week, the lure of a fast buck swept across Harrisburg once again. The latest bids for drilling rights on state forest land generated twice the revenue anticipated. The response in the Capitol: Let’s cash in! There are 1.4 million more acres of forest land out there that we haven’t leased yet. (That the state didn’t have the courage to demand a tax on this vast resource is another shameful story.)
Rep. Greg Vitali (D., Delaware) voiced the warning that should be reverberating around Harrisburg when it comes to handing Penn’s Woods to energy developers. “We need to go real slow at this and not look at the parks as a cash cow,” he said. That’s true of the whole gas leasing boom, on public and private land.
So far, the gas industry has called all the shots in states with Marcellus reserves. Pennsylvania is no exception.
In the absence of tough oversight in Harrisburg, concerned citizens have been left to ask: What will this do to water supplies? (Drinking water and streams have already been contaminated.) What chemicals are you using to extract the gas? (Until recently, the industry insisted this was a trade secret. Some are known carcinogens.) What happens to all the waste water generated? (The industry now concedes a lot of it will remain underground.)
In place of answers, the gas industry has given Pennsylvanians the same mumbo jumbo that the Renovo folks heard back in 1967: We meet all regulations. Trouble is, there aren’t enough regulations. Or regulators.
If developers are willing to pay top dollar to grab this natural resource, then it’s worth holding up the race for riches to make some wise choices – choices that won’t destroy Pennsylvania and haunt future generations.
Loggers swept across the northern tier of the state more than a century ago, leaving denuded mountains and polluted waterways. Only through decades of publicly funded reforestation and careful stewardship did the magnificent wooded headwaters of the Susquehanna, Delaware, and Allegheny river basins recover.
Pennsylvania gave away the store to the coal barons, too. They gouged hillsides, destroyed drinking water supplies, contaminated thousands of miles of streams, and left a cleanup tab in the billions of dollars.
Does anybody see a pattern here?
The short-term gains of these exploitative industries have become the long-term debts of Pennsylvania’s citizens. If wiser heads don’t prevail soon, the natural gas boom will leave a similar legacy – one regretted long after the resource, and those who profited from it, are gone.
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