Natural Gas Lessons Learned from Pa. in an Undecided N.Y.
Attendees at the most recent Empire Energy Forum heard about what’s happening with natural gas in Pennsylvania directly from one of those individuals most effected and it was nothing like the horror stories painted by anti-natural gas special interests determined to halt the economic revival of the Southern Tier before it even gets off the ground.
The same day the most recent Siena poll came out showing New Yorkers were still undecided about allowing shale gas development to transform our state, a fourth generation dairy farmer was telling local elected officials and business leaders about his experience in Pennsylvania.
“I see tremendous opportunity in Pennsylvania,” said Erick Coolidge, the owner and operator of Le-Ma-Re Farms in Tioga County. “I’m not here to represent industry. I’m here to represent people like you and me,” and with that he began his participation in the Empire Energy Forum in Corning, presented by the New York State Petroleum Council.
Coolidge, in addition to being a working dairy farmer, served as a Tioga County Commissioner for 17 years and was vice chair of the USDA’s Dairy Industry Advisory Committee under US Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack so he sees shale gas development from several different perspectives which he is quick to sum up: “It’s about our future, the environment and our economy.”
He’s seen his fellow farmers successfully lease their land while still working their farms. The added income from the natural gas operators is a blessing. “Eighty-percent of the farmers re-invest in their operations,” he says. Without that regular revenue stream, it would be impossible to make capital improvements, let alone build a healthy cash reserve in an agrarian industry that is fickle at best. “Landowners shouldn’t base their farm’s future on this: it is just additional revenue. This revenue is generational in nature only if there is development. It needs to be respected and managed.”
More importantly and emphatically he states “it’s a chance to give back, it’s a gift. What do you do with gifts? You appreciate them. If you’re afforded a chance to give back, it’s what you do. You invest in your community. You’re part of the economy.”
More than merely buying more acreage or expanding the herd or getting a new tractor, additional revenue to a farm family means money is shared with the things and people that hold meaning, like church or school, or other philanthropic endeavors. Most importantly, the revenue gives security to the legacy. “Without another generation to farm, the land is worthless,” he says.
Coolidge is very knowledgeable about the largest impact of unconventional development. He knows that a good regulatory system will keep operators working to a high standard. He knows the direct impact of a well being drilled lasts two months and the hydraulic fracturing portion is only a few days. He’s well aware that casing and cementing could (and can) cause problems, whether it’s a vertical well or horizontal well. Many steps have been taken to avoid these issues and Coolidge is appreciative of all the protective measures and processes in place as the industry matures. When there was methane migration, it has been mitigated promptly and technology moving forward will make these instances less likely.
Full disclosure, too, is key. “Industry takes full responsibility here and reports to the proper authorities.” He also knows that upwards of many wells were drilled without one case of groundwater contamination. And he knows and respects the value of the Marcellus Shale formation. “The Marcellus is a very big deal. It has all the markings and it couldn’t be located in a better place,” he asserts. He’s seen the impact the natural gas industry has made in his state: in Tioga County for 2013, the estimated investment will range from $300 to $350 million for pipeline development and estimates 30 to 35 wells drilled.
When asked why towns in the Keystone State didn’t try to block development with bans and moratoria, he answered that honest and open discussions with industry and regulatory bodies helped. Elected officials saw the true benefits of the industry and the economy, job creation, and the future it could promise for the commonwealth. Coolidge admits it’s frustrating to watch what’s happening in New York and said, “Irresponsible communications serve no one. I think it’s important that we base our discussions in science.”
Presentations from oil and gas expert Greg Sovas and Karen Moreau, Executive Director of the New York State Petroleum Council, supported Coolidge’s remarks. Said Sovas, “Natural gas is the foundation of our energy plan for the future. It’s not a bridge fuel. This (developing the Marcellus Shale in New York) may be the biggest development opportunity of our generation for the economically depressed Southern Tier.”
Or, as Coolidge said, “It’s not about us, it’s about the generations to follow that matters. We need to get it right and we will.”