Op-Ed: Joe Sestak on Marcellus Shale Development

Over the past three years, more than 1,500 wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania to tap into the Marcellus Shale. This geologic formation has enough natural gas to feed the country’s energy needs for 15 years, but as the ever-growing BP oil disaster shows, energy development is not without serious risks. We cannot allow Pennsylvania’s rural economies to suffer the same fate as those along the Gulf. We can, however, create jobs and protect the health and safety of our children. 

As drilling expands and creates scores of rural jobs, we must ensure they are secured by strong protections. Some have made the argument that more regulations means less jobs, that state regulations are enough and any restrictions beyond that will mean less for Pennsylvania workers. That is simply not true. Pennsylvania needs a strong energy industry. That will not happen, however, if some companies are allowed to cut corners and put our health and our environment at risk.

There is no greater example right now than the Gulf Coast, where lax oversight of drilling has resulted not only in the loss of industry jobs but also in the devastation of local fishing and tourism industries. Billions of dollars in revenue will be lost in the coming years as the oil spill takes its toll, meaning a darker future for those who work in and depend on those industries. The same effect has been observed with natural gas development in places like Colorado and Wyoming, where businesses like ranching and outdoor outfitters have seen their profits dry up because of the impacts from drilling. But if development is done right the first time, we can ensure those jobs will be around for years to come. 

As we said in the Navy, “Expect what you inspect.” The state needs to continue to hire more well inspectors to keep up with the growth in Marcellus development and they need time to be properly trained — especially in light of the 25 percent budget cut the state Department of Environmental Protection received this year. 
Pennsylvania needs to also ensure its citizens can get and retain these jobs. According to a study by the Pennsylvania College of Technology and the Penn State Cooperative Extension Service, “Initially, a large portion of natural gas industry jobs will be filled by non-local workers” that are specially trained, making it imperative to build training programs so that Pennsylvanians can be trained to fill the rapidly increasing employment needs of the industry.

We can create these jobs without any cost to our health and livelihood. At the federal level, we must close the “Halliburton Loophole,” a Bush-era special-interest deal that allows drillers to skirt the Safe Drinking Water Act. At least seven Pennsylvania counties have had their drinking water contaminated. I have co-sponsored the FRAC Act to repeal the loophole — it should be passed and enforced before we expand drilling. 

At the state level, we need to approve regulations, such as the ones recently approved by Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC), and new laws such as those proposed by State Representatives Greg Vitale and Camille “Bud” George, to provide greater safeguards and tools to regulators. 

Pennsylvania should develop the Marcellus Shale, but we should do it right. If we take the necessary steps to ensure Marcellus Shale development is done safely and effectively, rather than dictated by what drives oil and gas corporations’ profits, we can create the sustainable job growth and economic benefits Pennsylvanians deserve.

As a former 3-star Navy Admiral, Congressman Joe Sestak is the highest-ranking Veteran elected to Congress and is the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.

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