"Is the Marcellus Shale our generation's boom and, if it is, how will future generations of historians view the choices we make with it now?"
That is the question Penn State University professor Brian Black asked the more than 30 people who attended his presentation Wednesday at the James V. Brown Library.
Black, a professor of history and environmental studies at Penn State's Altoona campus, presented "Harvesting Pennsylvania's Natural Resources: Marcellus Shale in a Historical Perspective."
More than 30 people attended a presentation Wednesday by Pennsylvania State University Professor Brian Black at the James V. Brown Library. Black discussed Marcellus Shale development from a historical perspective.
He compared the environmental impacts and social dynamics of coal and oil extraction in the state to shale gas development.
The state has a long history of coal extraction that continues to this day, Black said. The harvesting of coal began in the 1800s. After the War of 1812, anthracite began to be used and it helped the state become a world leader in the production of coal.
Most of the mining was done underground until the advent of strip mining in the 20th century. Strip mining created huge impacts on the landscape as whole mountain tops were leveled.
Some "voices of alarm" were sounded about the practice, Black said. Author Wendell Berry called strip mining "industrial vandalism" and "a scene from the Book of Revelation."
In addition to the destruction of the landscape, acid mine drainage from coal mines polluted rivers and streams throughout the state, he said. Many of those impacts remain today.
According to Black, petroleum followed but did not altogether replace coal as an energy resource. It provided people with a more flexible alternative to coal.
Oil was known to be seeping out of the ground in western Pennsylvania in the mid 1700s. When the first oil well was drilled in Titusville in 1859, oil "became the prime mover in American society," he said.
America became even more dependent on the use of petroleum products with the introduction of the automobile. The nation became accustomed to a cheap and seemingly endless supply of oil.
Until 1960, all of the nation's petroleum needs were taken care of with domestic supplies. Once that changed and we turned to foreign oil, politically driven shortages, such as the Arab oil embargoes of the mid- and late 1970s revealed how "dependent on energy we'd become," Black said.
"People began to think about where their energy came from," he said.
That began an energy transition in the United States.
An energy transition takes a long time - so long people do not know they are in one when it is happening, he said. The transition "ebbs and flows," and some people react to it differently.
For example, even today with concerns about our dependency on foreign oil, some people choose to drive large gas-guzzling vehicles while others drive fuel-efficient hybrids.
The use of wind energy is part of the transition and so is the development of the Marcellus Shale, he said.
There are pros and cons to the development of the shale, he said.
Pros include the fact that it is cleaner than other fossil fuels. It disturbs less land than coal mining. It is entirely domestically produced. It is affordable. It creates jobs and income in rural areas where those types of opportunities are rare.
Cons include the fragmentation of forest habitat and the potential for wastewater to pollute surface and groundwater supplies. Leaking methane also is a harmful greenhouse gas.
"The leading issue is the effect on water quality," Black said.
There were no efforts to deal with the impacts of coal mining, Black said. In many cases, the companies that created the problems were long gone once efforts were made to mitigate those problems.
That must not be the case with natural gas development, he said. People in areas impacted by gas development need to stand up and demand responsible development.
"Almost all of the companies doing the development are coming from elsewhere," he said. "The impacts to local communities will never be a high priority until they are forced to be."
According to library adult programming coordinator Shawn Newcomer, the program was supported by the Public Humanities Scholars, with funding by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.