In Rebuttal: The Marcellus opportunity

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This is in response to Dan Simpson’s July 30 column, “Fracking Compromises the Future”: I am from coal country, too. The hard coal region of Pennsylvania. My family’s immigrant patriarchs all spent their early working years carving out a living in the mines throughout the first half of the 20th century. While the mines were cold, dark and dangerous, they were the means to give these new immigrant families a better life. When they had enough money saved to buy their freedom, they did.

Freedom for my dad’s family was a plot of farmland in what we now call Marcellus country, far from the colliery spoils, mine fires and acid mine drainage. As a kid traveling into town, I remember seeing those still recent scars, which were a stark contrast to the natural beauty to which I’ve grown accustomed. But that’s what those scars are for me: a reminder of the blood and sweat, paid forward, to give a better, cleaner chance at life for my young family and me.

So how do we take the lessons of the coal era and apply them to our future energy needs?

While coal and natural gas are both natural resources that have fueled an economic transformation, the similarities in the legacies of those industries will end there. In the days when coal was king, the coal companies owned the land, and they squeezed that land for all it could give. 

Contrast that with the Marcellus, which is owned by hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have built their lives for generations on top of its hidden treasure. These farmers, sportsmen and conservationists have invested in their land for generations out of love for the lifestyle without knowledge of the coming energy boom.

The Marcellus has already been good to these property owners. By the spring of 2013, The Associated Press estimated that over $1.2 billion had been paid to Pennsylvania mineral owners in the form of royalties. Where I come from, this money is saving the family farms from previous foreclosure threats, keeping properties from being subdivided, saving us all from the associated effects of urban sprawl and, overall, making a hard way of life a little easier.

Royalty owners are using this money and investing it in our kids, in better farming and forestry practices, as well as into the communities through support of local businesses, and into the state, through personal income taxes. We are not seeing farms abandoned in exchange for tropical islands. I see new tractors, new roofs on barns and charitable donations.

The Simpson column refers to this phenomenon as an “El Dorado of unearned wealth,” a phrase I fundamentally reject, and I believe that perversion of the debate is meant to sow envy, which only further marginalizes the minority which shares that view. Out here in Marcellus country, our land often defines us and our chosen lifestyle. Unconventional shale gas reservoirs are our property. When looking out your window at those “scenic views,” remember someone actually owns them, and there’s a story behind why they exist. Our land is not just a backdrop to your commute.

Inevitably, it is the owners of the Marcellus who will never let the environmental woes of the coal era be repeated. This development is taking place on our land, and I have yet to meet anyone who will stand complicit with any practices that jeopardize their family’s safety or that of the greater community. As royalty owners, we feel a strong, well-funded regulatory body to oversee the drilling operations will protect all citizens of the commonwealth.

Mr. Simpson’s attempt to equate environmental destruction with all shale drilling is unfounded. According to the Department of Environmental Protection, Pennsylvania’s unconventional gas well count stands at 9,550. If environmental degradation were inevitable for each gas well drilled, as asserted, we’d see a lot more complaints. No one wants to see anyone’s water supply damaged and I expect to see the industry’s environmental record continue to improve from the early exploration, but Mr. Simpson’s fear mongering is overstated.

We are building the legacy of shale gas development in Pennsylvania today, but I am far more optimistic about how history will remember us. It will be an organized, informed and engaged royalty owner who will be the catalyst for balanced, common-sense shale gas development. Ninety-six percent of unconventional natural gas produced in Pennsylvania is produced by members of the leading industry trade group. Royalty owners also need to recognize the value of organizing around our interests in an effort to ward off threats to our rights, which include the imposition of punitive taxes, moratoriums and our ongoing struggle to be paid properly for our gas.

Trevor Walczak is a natural resource manager and vice president of the National Association of Royalty Owners, Pennsylvania Chapter (NARO-PA), which is based in Bradford County.

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