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Pa. Dems fight to prove they can milk fracking for all it’s worth

Pennsylvania residents say fracking could be done more safely and financially benefit more of the state

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — Lycoming County looks like a lot of the rest of Pennsylvania: Pothole-marked roads snake through mountains and farmland, leading to little one-street towns that often contain little more than a coffee shop, a bank, a gas station and a bar.

But ever since companies like Anadarko, EXCO Resources, XTO Energy and Range Resources came to town, everyday life has had a little more buzz around here.

Eighteen-wheelers zip by day and night, cafes and restaurants in small cities like Williamsport are busy, and the parking lots of the Holiday Inns, Marriotts and many independent motels are packed with pickups from out of state.

This is fracking country, and to supporters of the practice, Lycoming represents all the good that can come from it — jobs, economic growth and energy independence. To fracking’s detractors, Lycoming represents everything wrong with Pennsylvania, namely the state’s apparent willingness to embrace extractive industries to the potential peril of the environment and even the state’s bottom line.

To local activist Ralph Kisberg, who grew up in Williamsport, it represents both.

“I hate it, and it’s ugly,” he said. “But you can’t deny that the hotels expanded, the restaurants are busy, the car dealers are through the roof … Lots of people benefit from it, and I appreciate what my community wants.”

On Tuesday, Pennsylvanians will vote for which of four Democratic candidates they want to see take on Republican Gov. Tom Corbett come November. The primary has become a fight for the votes of people like Kisberg.

In a state where hydraulic fracturing has created thousands of jobs and filled the treasury’s coffers with hundreds of millions of dollars, the question of whether fracking is good or bad isn’t even being considered by any of the election’s viable candidates. Instead, the election has become a referendum on whether the process can be made safer and more financially rewarding for the average Pennsylvanian.

The candidates are hoping to capitalize on Corbett’s low approval ratings, which are partially due to his failure to extract more money for the state from fracking. He is in danger of being the first incumbent governor to lose a re-election bid since 1968, when the state began allowing governors to run for two terms.

According to a Franklin and Marshall College poll conducted in January, Corbett’s unpopularity is primarily due to education cuts that forced schools to lay off thousands of teachers over the last year. The second biggest factor is how he has managed and spent state money. Despite the fracking boom, the state’s next fiscal year looks bleak, with a more than $1 billion budget deficit predicted.

Democrats are now trying to use those budget issues to push their hydraulic fracturing agenda, promising to turn Pennsylvania’s natural resources into a goldmine for the state.

Developing the state’s resources could “make our commonwealth the Saudi Arabia of natural gas and, if managed correctly, transform our economy,” front-runner Tom Wolf said on his website.

Wolf, a businessman and former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue, has spent millions of his own money trying to convince Pennsylvanians that if he’s elected, he will impose the state’s first severance tax on fracking companies.

The tax would siphon revenue from each gas well, eventually accumulating billions of dollars for things like education and infrastructure in the state. As of now, Pennsylvania is the largest oil and gas producing state without a severance tax. Wolf’s closest competitor, Allyson Schwartz, has a similar proposal. State Treasurer Rob McCord, who is trailing Wolf and Schwartz in recent polling, favors a 10 percent tax.

The candidates have also promised to toughen laws on royalty payments. This year, several cases of landowners getting paid minuscule amounts from drilling companies made headlines locally and nationally.

The Democratic candidates also say they’ll tighten environmental regulations on fracking, increase inspections of wells and halt new drilling in state parks — though those environmental issues seem to be farther down most Pennsylvanians’ list of wants than the economic ones.

“The election is a referendum on Pennsylvania’s record of shale gas development and what a poor record it has been,” said Nadia Steinzor, the eastern program coordinator for Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit. “It would be politically untenable for candidates to come out against drilling, but what’s being asked of them is to put the interests of the public above the interests of the drillers.”

But there’s a question of how big a difference any of the Democratic candidates will make when it comes to natural gas drilling. Despite their pledges to transform how Pennsylvania’s shale is managed, some residents and activists say they’re not expecting much to change after the election.

“It’s an election Pennsylvania style, and that means it’s like any other oil and gas state, where the industry is already there, advancing and politically powerful,” said Steinzor.

She and others said they’re hoping the election will at least push fracking to the forefront of voters’ minds. But for others, the industry just seems too embedded for any one politician to make a difference.

Lycoming County has over 700 fracking wells, and the surrounding counties have thousands more. With the industry investing billions in the state each year, the idea that any candidate, Democrat or otherwise, will rein in the industry strikes some as wishful thinking.

Perhaps no one knows that better than those who have been directly affected by natural gas drilling.

George, a 70-year-old retired farmer and a friend of Kisberg’s, has six wells owned jointly by four companies, including Anadarko, on his property north of Williamsport. He didn’t want his last name used, out of fear that publicly stating he’s making money from fracking could make him a target for robberies.

He said he supports fracking but believes the industry has too much power. Like many landowners, he feels he’s being underpaid by the companies who leased his land and now regrets letting them on the property in the first place.

George said after trying numerous times to get in touch with Anadarko and the other companies without success, he tried to get in touch with local politicians, but they haven’t returned his phone calls either.

“This is an oil and gas company. You can’t trust them,” he said. “But the politicians aren’t going to do something either. It’s really a sad story, and then you try to contact your government, and nobody seems to want to help you out.”

Now George is planning on staying home come Election Day.

“I really don’t think they could make a difference, I don’t care what politician it is,” he said. “I won’t vote for any of them.”

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