Is Drilling and Pipelines Something We 'Tneed?'

Commentary by Sara Kaplaniak

You wouldn’t think that an animated, musical film could apply to real life. But that’s what happened for me upon viewing the movie based on Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax with my children.

In the story, one of the main characters — the Once-ler — descends upon the pristine Truffula Tree forest to transform its natural resources into “Thneeds” which are “Fine-Somethings-That-All-People-Need.” Eventually, the Once-ler’s booming business leads to the destruction of the very last Truffula tree, a prediction made by the Lorax who, as most of us know, speaks for the trees.

The movie quickly came to mind again later that day while reading a newspaper article about a proposed 200-mile, $1 billion pipeline that would deliver natural gas from production facilities in northeastern Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale region to customers in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington. If signed off on by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the gas companies would aim to complete the project by 2015. Once complete, the pipeline would transport 7.8 million cubic feet and $5.1 million worth of natural gas per day.

After more digging, I learned that the Commonwealth Pipeline, as it would be called, could mean cheaper natural gas for mid-Atlantic folks like me. That’s because until the Marcellus Shale boom, most natural gas came from the Gulf Coast or the western United States. Having the energy source hundreds, rather than thousands, of miles away makes it less expensive because natural gas suppliers pay on the basis of how far their gas needs to travel.

That sounded reasonable to me. But with existing concerns about the drilling and Dr. Seuss’s wise words fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but hear the Lorax in my head, wondering “Is more drilling and pipelines something everyone needs?”

There are a few things that we really do need: clean water, clean air and healthy food. Depending on what you read, there’s a chance that these basic needs could be jeopardized if we aren’t careful about reducing the impacts that extracting and transporting natural gas place on the environment.

Not unlike the Once-ler, the natural gas companies have descended upon a pristine landscape of large and unbroken forestlands that store carbon, harbor wildlife, clean the air and filter water contributing to cool, clear streams popular for their healthy trout populations and important to drinking water for millions of Pennsylvanians. This region also boasts healthy soils worked by generations of farmers who form the backbone of the state’s traditional agricultural economy.

Drilling and fracking and building a pipeline do not go hand in hand with a landscape covered in forests, streams and farmland. Picture roads and pumping stations instead of trees. Imagine the sound of trucks and drilling activities instead of crickets and birds. It becomes more difficult to picture rich, healthy soils suitable for growing food.

While the natural gas boom promises to bring much-needed dollars to the state, it raises some concern among residents worried about the effects that drilling and pipeline building will have on drinking water. They also worry that air pollution from increased traffic and chemicals used in the drilling will cause long-term health problems.

They might have reason to worry. A state-funded study aimed at establishing baseline data on the prevalence of acute and chronic medical conditions among residents living in counties hosting natural gas production is in the works. Conducted in conjunction with the Northeast Regional Cancer Institute, the study will survey 500 residents from 10 counties affected by Marcellus Shale drilling operations.

Would this study be needed if the landscape were left to forests, streams and farms?

Regardless, the drilling has begun and is unlikely to end until the last well is tapped. In coming months, natural gas companies will pursue next steps for the Commonwealth Pipeline to more efficiently transport their product to the people who need it most. This will include finalizing a route, contacting affected landowners and municipalities, holding public meetings, obtaining permits and gathering environmental data. Based on precedents established in other parts of the country, it’s expected that FERC will determine that the benefit of a pipeline that crosses streams (water), displaces farmland (food) and fragments forests (air) outweighs its environmental impact.

However let’s not forget about what happens in The Lorax. In the end, the Once-ler has big regrets. He biggered and biggered and biggered his business (his words) until the landscape could no longer support wildlife or yield a single tree. No one wanted to live or visit there, either. One would deduce that he regretted his lack of vision, which is why he handed over one remaining Truffula tree seed to a young boy he hoped would do a better job.

When the gas is gone, will we hand over a seed to our children, or an entire forest? Time will tell.

Sara Kaplaniak lives and writes in Pennsylvania, where she reduces, reuses and recycles along with her husband and two kids. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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