WELLSBORO - As gas drilling protestors staged a vigil outside, state and federal legislators spoke about that hot topic Thursday at the Tioga County Development Corp.'s 14th annual Legislative Breakfast at the Penn Wells Hotel.
The economic future of the area looks bright, compared to what it looked like a year ago when the sagging economy and massive job losses took center stage, agreed U.S. Rep. Glenn "GT" Thompson, R-Howard, and state Rep. Matthew E. Baker, R-Wellsboro.
Before an audience of 200, Thompson jokingly compared Tioga County to Washington, D.C.
CHERYL R. CLARKE/Sun-Gazette
A group calling itself Citizens Concerned About Natural Gas Drilling picket outside the Penn Wells Hotel during the annual Tioga County Development Corp. Legislative Breakfast Thursday. Shown from left are Ron and Jackie Patt of Wellsboro, Barbara and Grant Silverstein of Roseville, Barb Slocum of Blossburg, Branin Boyd of Liberty, Emily Rizzo of Millerton, Daniel Schmitt of Mansfield, Beth Higginson of Liberty, Brian Meadows of Wellsboro, Cliff Hunt of Wellsboro and John Kesich of Millerton.
"You've managed to replicate the traffic in Washington, made it impossible to find a motel room and mobilized citizens with placards protesting out front," he said, referring to a group calling themselves "Citizens Concerned About Natural Gas Drilling." Their placards told passing motorists and pedestrians they are against the hydro fracturing process used by the gas industry.
Referring to the Marcellus Shale, Thompson said, "It's right underneath our feet. We are standing on prosperity. We've faced some tough economic times here in rural Pennsylvania, with high unemployment and the tough times it brings, for some time."
With the discovery of the second largest pool of natural gas in the world, enough to provide the energy needs of the nation for the next 100 years, he said, "We can move toward energy security and independence."
"We send $700 billion every year to middle eastern nations who are not necessarily friendly toward us.
"The Marcellus Shale will provide jobs for Americans and Tioga County workers, in particular, to produce that energy, and Pennsylvania will become an energy exporter, rather than an energy importer."
Accidents and abuses of the law will affect environmental issues, such as those the protesters are concerned about, he said, but with the regulations in place today and the cooperation of the industry, those issues are minimized by agencies such as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission and state Department of Environmental Protection.
"Most people think they (DEP) are fair, and have done a better job than the federal government," he said.
Aide Chuck Dillon, representing state Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, R-Brockway, concurred, saying the industry is "heavily regulated" to protect ground water and surface water quality.
"If followed, there shouldn't be any major problems with water quality," he said.
The Achilles heel is in enforcement of the law, he added, especially when oversight was removed from the conservation districts last year and DEP funding was cut during the state budget crisis.
"The senator was concerned about that and met with DEP Secretary John Hanger. He was reassured that they did have problems in the past but those would be addressed and additional oversight would be provided," he said.
Dillon also spoke about the importance of citizen's groups like the newly formed "Waterdogs" to report violations to the department and to "be aware" of what is going on around them.
"Most companies are responsible about following regulations. It is the smaller subcontractors that have to be watched," he said.
Dillon talked about deteriorating road conditions in the Northern Tier, but said to be fair it wasn't all the gas industry's fault.
"Our roads here have been neglected by the state for a hundred years," he said, "and now that the gas industry is riding them, they are crumbling because they have no base."
The industry has, however, offered to repair damage done to local roads, often "making them better than they were before," Dillon said.
The proposed gas impact severance tax is being actively pursued by state lawmakers, Dillon said.
"The primary driver is the state's budget deficit," he said. "Gas companies seem to have a lot of money, and when there is blood in the water, the sharks will gather."
The problem, he added, is that the money will not stay in the region, but rather go into the general fund, where it will be disbursed to the "big three: education, corrections and public welfare."
"It should be spent here but it won't be invested locally for infrastructure needed to keep growth going once the resources are exhausted."
Baker, who is in his ninth term in the state House, said he grew up in a natural gas family, with his father working for Consolidated Gas, now Dominion, for years, and his brother working as a gas pipeline inspector.
"Now, I hear about it on the floor of the House of Representatives," he said.
Tioga and Bradford counties are at the "epicenter" of the Marcellus Shale play, he said.
The shale, he said, has the potential to have "the largest single impact of anything we have ever experienced," Baker said.
"The total economic potential has been estimated at a trillion dollars, and for every $16 billion in royalties paid, there will be nearly 8,000 jobs created each year over the next few years," he said.
It was noted that gas industry-related jobs will average about $63,000 per year, well above the state average reported in 2007 as about $43,000 per year.
Add to that the families now becoming "instant millionaires" because of royalties paid on leased land.
The state's water is protected, he said, by three major laws that regulate the industry, DEP, the Fish and Boat Commission, Susquehanna and Delaware River Basin commissions.
"The challenge for Pennsylvania will be how to balance fact from fiction about environmental concerns," he said.