Increasingly across the state of Pennsylvania, two words are dancing inside people's heads, forming on lips and keyboards: Marcellus shale. Many associate these words with "$$$," an opportunity to make some cash working a rig or leasing their land. For others, it brings images of bubbling rivers
, fouled drinking water and exploding barns. The reality seems somewhere in between, a confusing mixture of both fear and opportunity.
As the Pennsylvania Legislature reconvenes over the coming weeks, the debate being had in all corners of the state is over a proposed severance tax that would actually keep a small portion of proceeds from gas extraction in Pennsylvania. Among proposed uses for severance tax revenues are funding to cover a host of related costs to local infrastructure, environmental protection and conservation, and education. And of course, there's the huge state budget deficit always lurking in the shadows.
Conservatives oppose such a tax
, or have lobbied to make it insignificantly low, out of a stated fear that a severance tax would hinder the development of the gas industry in Pennsylvania. That ignores the fact that Pennsylvania is the only state with significant natural gas deposits to lack such a tax. And despite all the talk of how much revenue a healthy gas industry would generate for the state and local communities, without a severance tax, almost all of that money will be leaving the state along with gas companies that are headquartered elsewhere.
The development of heavy drilling operations poses a huge burden to local communities and infrastructure, and a severance tax is one way of mitigating the costs to municipalities. These burdens have already been felt in some rural parts of Pennsylvania experiencing drilling booms, including deteriorating roads due to the incredible truck activity
necessary for fracking, higher school enrollment
as workers follow job opportunities, and increased use of emergency services and local law enforcement.
The state legislature is set to reconvene for its last session before mid-term elections later this month. The passing of a simple, fair and effective severance tax should be at the top of its priority list. Gov. Rendell is not so sure it will happen, though, despite legislation already passed this year declaring that such a severance tax would be passed no later than October 1.
Local environmental groups, like PennFuture, have embarked on a "Keep the Promise" tour across Pennsylvania
to pressure the state legislature to make good on its obligation to taxpayers and the environment. And Josh Fox, creator of the award-winning documentary "Gasland," is continuing to hold public screenings and discussions of his film throughout the state. With industry investing heavily in lobbying campaigns against a tax, it has become all the more imperative for citizens and environmental groups to speak out and address their representatives.
Despite our current and future energy needs, threats of peak oil
, and huge budget deficits, now is not the time to blindly ravage our environment. In fact, it's an incredible opportunity to craft smarter public policy — encourage innovation in developing alternative energy sources, reinvest in rail infrastructure and clean public transportation, develop a more streamlined and rigorous drilling permit process — while engaging in a serious national discussion about the value and ramifications of our consumer-driven lifestyles.
The long-term health of the earth, and thus ourselves, cannot be sacrificed for short-term job opportunities and perceived energy needs. Mark Twain once said, "I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one." Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury anymore.