HARRISBURG, PA — For many years, natural gas developers have had their eyes on northern Wayne County, where potentially profitable shale deposits …
HARRISBURG, PA — For many years, natural gas developers have had their eyes on northern Wayne County, where potentially profitable shale deposits lay beneath the earth’s surface, untapped.
Environmentalists and a multi-state regulatory commission have successfully kept these drillers out of the area, while landowners and elected officials have demanded that it’s property owners’ right to decide what happens on their land.
“When you own property, it’s your property,” says Rep. Jonathan Fritz (R-111), who represents Wayne and Susquehanna counties in Harrisburg. “Whether it’s the timber, or the rocks, or the topsoil that is on your property; that is your possession. It is your right to harvest that and sell it as you see fit. It is the same dynamic with your rights of underfoot resources, whether that would be bluestone, or red shale or natural gas. And those folks being deprived of that essential property right are being wronged; they’re being harmed economically.”
The interstate group known as the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) voted to officially prohibit drilling for natural gas—or fracking—in February 2021. Prior to that, a de facto moratorium kept drillers out for more than 10 years.
Fritz has recently introduced two pieces of legislation to lift a ban he calls “indefensible.” The first bill would change the number of votes that each DRBC member gets based on land area. They currently have a single vote each. Fritz’s bill would give the commonwealth six, New Jersey three, New York two, Delaware one and the federal government one.
The other bill would amend the DRBC’s legal agreement to prevent the commission from passing or enforcing any measures that “impede or interfere with” companies’ ability to frack.
In neighboring Susquehanna County, where natural gas developers have been allowed to drill in the river basin for more than a decade, Fritz said he’s seen the county thrive economically.
“I see the tremendous benefit and economic opportunity that the [natural gas] industry for 10-plus years has brought to Susquehanna County. And, driving around the county, you can see a renewed enthusiasm and a renewed optimism for a country way of life as farms are restored and people have income and family-sustaining jobs,” Fritz said. “There are two benefits: There are the property owners that receive the royalty, and then there are the people that work within the industry. And it’s not just the natural gas companies, but all the ancillary companies… so the compounding effects of the industry are profound.”
For property owners specifically in northern Wayne County—the portion of the county where drillers are most interested in breaking ground—fracking’s biggest selling point is the amount of money they might receive for allowing companies to drill on their land.
Tom Shepstone, a Wayne County resident who runs a pro-fracking blog site, www.nat
uralgasnow.org, has been involved in past efforts to lift the frack ban in Wayne County. In late 2020, Shepstone used an online tool called Landgate—which gives property owners an appraisal of their land’s energy resources like solar, wind, carbon, mineral and water—to compare the property values of land in Susquehanna and Wayne counties.
According to Shepstone’s blog, thanks to fracking rights, parcels in Susquehanna were more than 40 times more valuable than parcels immediately on the opposite side of the county line, thanks to the DRBC’s restrictions.
However, natural gas opponents are at least equally adamant as proponents. Regional and local environmental groups have been the most vocally opposed to fracking, arguing that to allow it would damage the water quality of the Delaware River, exacerbate climate change and lead to negative health impacts for residents.
Fritz said that he believes fracking could be carried out in Wayne County in a measured way that would keep health and safety concerns at bay.
“I have tried earnestly to be pragmatic with the governor and the administration—including the Department of Environmental Protection—when it comes to natural gas development in Wayne County,” he said. “I asked the governor and his people, ‘How about if we just limit it to the [northern third of Wayne County]?’ where it can be done in a measured and calculated manner, and we can keep it under the microscope. And if there is hardship, if there is a problem, if there is an issue, then we can react, because it’s a small-footprint area.”
The representative also said that he thinks fracking can be done without getting too close to the Delaware River for comfort.
“We have natural gas laterals nowadays that go upwards of four-and-a-half miles. I can stay miles away from the Delaware River,” he said. “So [to] those people that are concerned with the impact on the river, or having to see some kind of pipeline or natural gas wellhead while kayaking or canoeing down the Delaware River: We can certainly stipulate that we not do it in close proximity to the river so that none of those impacts occur.”
A pro-fracking stance has been the norm for Wayne County’s elected officials, especially in the Republican Party. State Sen. Lisa Baker, who represents Wayne and Pike counties, had been part of various legal challenges to the DRBC’s fracking moratorium before it voted through a full ban.
Shortly before the ban took place, the Wayne County Commissioners in January 2021 voted 2-1 (the two Republicans voting in favor and the single Democrat voting against) to join a lawsuit against the DRBC. The commissioners said their decision to join the suit was based mostly on property rights, which they felt were being stolen from Wayne County residents as a result of the DRBC’s moratorium.
But lately, the conversation about tapping into natural gas in our backyards has been filtered through events abroad. In light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Fritz said that it’s a “very sobering reminder” to decrease the country’s dependence on foreign energy.
“My heart breaks for Ukraine and the atrocity that is playing out there with the Russia invasion… The nations that we look to for energy—Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia—they can be dangerous nations,” he said. “So I feel as though, if we have the opportunity to harvest domestic energy, it makes sense not only economically but morally.”
Fritz also referenced a 2019 study that found that U.S.-sourced, liquefied natural gas burns up to 56 percent cleaner than European coal.
“When it comes to environmental impact, we want to choose domestic, Pennsylvania-sourced natural gas over Russian natural gas,” he said.
Still, climate scientists have not heralded natural gas as the answer to the climate crisis. One of the top concerns with natural gas extraction is that it allows methane—a greenhouse gas 80 to 90 times more potent than carbon dioxide—to leak into the atmosphere. Recent studies have found that scientists have been underestimating methane emissions related to gas and oil extraction by up to 40 percent.
Since introducing his legislation, Fritz has faced criticism from some anti-fracking groups that his legislation would carry little to no weight beyond Harrisburg, since the DRBC is made up of three other states plus the federal government. Fritz said that this is unprecedented legal territory.
“Right now we are looking to establish legal precedent—because at present there is none—that would dictate the process or procedure for one state to operate out of alignment with the other states,” he said, noting a current Supreme Court regarding an agreement between New York State and New Jersey that might set such a precedent. “We’re really at a point in history where these [interstate agreements] are being tested legally, and the legislation that I am introducing is part of that movement to test the legality of these compacts and commissions because it undermines a state’s sovereignty.”
Fritz also noted the divisiveness of this topic, and that he would likely not be able to change many people’s minds on fracking.
“It’s not that I don’t respect people’s position on any given issue, but they need to understand that when there is an issue where there are two or more sides, it is my duty and obligation to reflect the will of the majority,” he said. “If I don’t do that, I don’t get re-elected. I need to stand with the majority.”
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