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Sudden Wealth from Gas Rush Fractures Pennsylvania Communities

The gas industry’s promise of prosperity has cleaved some communities and frayed the fabric that traditionally binds small towns together

By Elizabeth McGowan, SolveClimate News

May 18, 2011

"I don't want to be seen as a person who complains, complains, complains, but I wish I’d been louder when all of the leasing was going on," she says. "Then again, how can we fight this thing that's so big and an industry that's so huge?"

That's exactly what Nadia Steinzor is trying to ferret out.

Armed with oodles of experience in communications and outreach, the grassroots organizer has spent the last couple of years traveling in Pennsylvania and the five other Appalachian Basin states — New York, Maryland, Ohio, West Virginia and Virginia — where mere mention of extracting a bountiful resource from the Marcellus Shale formation can ignite a firestorm. The natural gas is being harvested from a yawning sheath of sedimentary rock formed around 400 million years ago during what scientists label the Devonian Period.

Steinzor has watched firsthand as the industry's promise of prosperity has cleaved communities and frayed the fabric that traditionally binds small towns such as Montrose together. She's not at all surprised that frazzled residents feel as if they are living at the epicenter of an energy earthquake.

"People want to feel as if they are in control of the economic fate of their community, and in places such as Montrose they don't," says Steinzor, now employed by the advocacy group . "They feel powerless. To be told it's your patriotic duty to extract natural gas to meet the nation’s energy needs doesn’t sit very well with people."

With the "act now and plan later" mantra adopted by regulators and the industry in the Keystone State, she emphasizes, it's only natural that Pennsylvanians are so splintered.

"This is all proceeding without a plan," Steinzor continues, adding that blaming the naysayers is a cop out. "It's not that people at the local level are unwilling to accept change. It's because nobody was willing to sit still long enough to let people figure out if massive-scale industrial development could be done without public health, environmental and psychological damage."

The tremendous rush to drill meant communities never had the chance to engage in difficult but necessary conversations and debates about the effects of large-scale energy extraction.

Unlike other parts of Pennsylvania, Steinzor notes, places such as Susquehanna County are rookies when it comes to familiarity with any sort of drilling. Cabot drilled its first well there in 2006. Instead of only hearing about how their wallets would be filled, residents needed detailed A to Z lessons in hydraulic fracturing so they could rationally assess whether investing would be a boon or a boondoggle.

"It's no wonder people feel as if they are under siege," emphasizes Steinzor, who has earned an undergraduate degree in international relations and a master's in environmental policy. "I'm finding people just want it to stop so they can catch their breath. There is no end in sight and nobody knows where this is headed."

Educating From Within

Lynn Senick felt like a voice in the wilderness three years ago when she created an online natural gas forum geared for Susquehanna County. Registrants could voice their concerns, exchange information and learn what was erupting in their own backyard. Membership has blossomed to at least 240 participants since its start.

Too many county residents, she maintains, signed leases quickly without asking questions about safety and short- and long-term repercussions.  

"I don't understand why people in this community think there's nothing they can do about this," says Senick, who labels herself as an educator, not an activist. "You might as well do what you can."

"I've become obsessed with gas drilling," she adds with a sly smile, while seated on the couch in her Montrose living room. "I know way more than any layperson should know about it."

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