Ferrick@Fels: Exploit and Escape?

July 18, 2011

By Tom Ferrick Jr.
If you want an object lesson on the dangers inherent in extraction of natural resources, talk to the residents of Centralia – the 10 who are left.
Centralia was a town of 1,000 located northeastern Pennsylvania that had the great misfortune of having someone inadvertently set a fire that seeped below ground and ignited gases trapped in a web of abandoned hard coal mines. That was in 1962. The fire is still burning today.
As residents grew sick from carbon monoxide, as sink holes began opening up – one nearly swallowed a 12-ear-old boy, the state and federal government intervened, moved most residents out, effectively condemned the entire town and cordoned it off. Wikipedia refers to Centralia as “a borough and ghost town in Columbia County.” The 10 who lived there in 2010 were diehards or, if you prefer, knuckleheads.
Pennsylvania has been the center of extraction industries for centuries. The American oil industry began in Titusville. Wilkes-Barre and Scranton were once the unofficial capitals of “Hard Coal Country.” In western Pennsylvania, we still have strip mining for bituminous coal. The timber industry dominated for more than a century along the state’s northern tier. Those were the bad old days, when the industry mantra was “exploit and escape.” They didn’t give a hoot about environmental impact – an alien concept until the mid-20th Century.
Now, we are witnessing the birth of a new extraction industry, with the discovery of vast reserves of natural gas that lie beneath the geologic formation known as the Marcellas Shale. Actually, the existence of the gas was known for decades, but it was so deep inside the bowels of the earth that extracting wasn’t considered feasible.
That changed 10 years ago with discovery of a process called hydraulic fracking. Using this method, a well is dug first vertically for about a mile, then it is turned so it runs horizontally another mile. A mixture of sand, water and chemicals is shot down the well and these “frack” – break up the rock, providing a path for the gas to escape. It is now cheaper to get at the gas and there is great demand for the product.
As with all extraction, there are opportunities and hazards – with the opportunities (jobs, creation of wealth, etc.) easy to quantify and the hazards less so.
When it comes to Marcellus Shale, one hazard revolves around disposal of the millions of gallons of fracking liquid, which has the potential of contaminating the ground water supply. It’s already happened in several northern tier communities that use well water. In the same way, there is a broader concern about contamination of watersheds that feed water to hundreds of communities. (The Delaware River, for instance, is a major source of water for Philadelphia.
Another potential concern, which is getting a more serious look lately, is that the drilling itself disturbs rock formations closer to the ground, releasing methane gas, that can leech into water as well. (This is a tough one because methane leeching that can happen even without drilling.)
Because of these questions, modern government has been doing what is does best: creating task forces to examine the issues. The EPA has one that just started examining in detail seven drill sites, three of them in Pennsylvania, to monitor effects. At last count, seven counties in Pennsylvania had their own Marcellus Shale Task Forces. So does the Pennsylvania Institute of CPA’s. So does the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.
The mother of all task forces was created by Gov. Corbett, a 30-member committee (stacked with government officials and industry reps, plus a small number of environmentalists) which is due to present its report and recommendations to Corbett next week (July 22).
Most of the media stories have centered on the issue of taxation. Pennsylvania is alone in not taxing natural gas extraction in some way and Corbett is against levying any tax, saying it could hamper growth of this vital new industry. In reality, even the gas industry has privately expressed a willingness to be taxed – to get the issue behind it. What may emerge is not a tax, but a, um, extraction fee.
In my mind, whether to tax or charge a fee is a minor issue. Even if the state gets $200 to $300 million a year from natural gas exploitation, it’s small change in a $27 billion state budget.
My concern is that taxing the gas will be accompanied by unleashing the industry to do what it wants where it wants in the name of maximizing the state’s yield, a path Corbett seems inclined to follow. The talk will be of the many opportunities. Not the hazards.
The industry has assured us that the drilling is safe, and will not harm the environment if handled according to proper procedures. God bless the industry, but I wouldn’t take its word on this. The extraction process being used is so new we cannot and they cannot be completely sure about its after effects.
Just as the companies that dug below Centralia in the 19th Century had no idea it would create an eternal fire 80 years later.
I have had a good career as a reporter covering things that were never supposed to happen. The Army Corps of Engineers, for instance, assured the good folks of Wilkes-Barre that the system of damns and levees it created would guarantee the city would never be flooded. Then along came Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 and Wilkes-Barre went under water.
The operators of Three Mile Island assured us that they had engineered so many safeguards into the plant a nuclear accident was impossible. I still remember the day in 1979 when I walked into my reporting job at the state Capitol and my colleague Bill Ecenbarger told me: The lieutenant governor is holding a news conference in 30 minutes. Apparently, there’s been an accident at the Three Mile Island plant.
Where’s Three Mile Island, I asked him. I would learn a lot about TMI in the subsequent days.
(By the way, at that news conference, the folks who ran TMI told us it had been a minor accident and that everything was under control.)
One of the problems with disasters – man-made and natural – is that you don’t get do overs. Once the water is in the public square, it’s too late to redesign the levees. Once those boron rods begin to melt down, you can’t engineer in additional safeguards. Once you taint a watershed, you can’t wave a wand over it and decontaminate it.
Once the fire starts, it can burn forever.
That doesn’t mean we should stop all gas drilling and make the world go away. What it means that any public policy that does not effectively and aggressively address the hazards puts our people and our natural resources at risk.
Let’s not return to the bad old days of “exploit and escape.” This time, let’s do it right.

Tom Ferrick, Jr., a journalist with more than 35 years of experience as a reporter, editor and columnist, is writing a regular column to keep the greater Fels community tuned in to Philadelphia. He is currently Senior Editor at Metropolis, a website offering in-depth news, analysis, and commentary about the Philadelphia region.

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