Tiny Pennsylvania Land Trust Is Tempted by Marcellus Shale Gas Riches

Gas developers would pay the land trust at least $15 million to drill on its acres. The group's divided board is taking a wait-and-see aproach for now

Paul Lumia, executive director of the North Branch Land Trust, at Howland Preserve in Tunkhannock, Pa.

Editor's Note: Some laud natural gas as cleaner burning, home-grown energy — a "bridge" fuel to a renewable future. But others fear the environmental costs of the industry's newest extraction technique — a combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or fracking — are too high. SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how this quest for energy is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the first in a multi-part series.

TUNKHANNOCK, Pa.—Paul Lumia tugs at his toboggan cap while striding across a meadow dusted with the remnants of a late spring snow, then sloshes through pockets of standing water that would have been coated with ice a few days prior.

It's there, while seated on a striking stone wall — the artistic legacy of a long-ago farmer — that he recounts a story of irony and temptation.

As executive director of the North Branch Land Trust, Lumia earns his paycheck protecting the natural heritage of his native Northeastern Pennsylvania in perpetuity. Thus far, the tiny nonprofit organization has conserved 11,000-plus acres.

And the directors on his governing board knew they could easily more than double those holdings in a heartbeat with income drawn from unleashing the divisive energy resource that lurks thousands of feet below the copse of yet-to-leaf-out oaks, maples and beeches reclaiming fallow farm fields behind the stone wall.

Lumia is sitting in the midst of the land trust's Howland Preserve. The 667-acre wildlife sanctuary in agriculture-heavy Wyoming County's Washington Township rests atop what's known as the Marcellus Shale.

For gas exploration and drilling companies, it's sacred ground. They covet the deeply buried ancient formation because geologists claim the potential energy stored in the sprawling rock layer repositions the Keystone State as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.

It's a remnant of a mighty old ocean bed, created from the flotsam and jetsam of animal and plant life that thrived on a very different looking planet some 390 million years ago.

Within the last year, one of those gas companies asked to lease acreage on the preserve to harvest natural gas via a relatively new technique that combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing.

Howard Preserve, atop the Marcellus Shale in Northeastern Pennsylvania

Lumia's conservative back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal that his nonprofit — with an annual budget hovering near $300,000 — could have raked in at least $3 million from just the initial lease.

Ballpark estimates of the ensuing royalties could have showered the land trust with an embarrassment of riches. How much? At the bare minimum, $15 million to $20 million; and significantly more if the shale is a "gusher."

"With that sort of capacity, there are tons of projects we could do," he says, listing opportunities such as acquiring choice properties by purchasing expensive development rights, and bumping up the number of staffers he supervises from three to six. "It would be quite a pot of cash."

He pauses. Thinking.

"Believe me," he says, a brief smile creeping across his lips, "our board went through a lot of back and forth."

The dilemma offered a conundrum, a mini-lesson in conservation ethics.

One side of a divided board insisted the answer was a no-brainer "yes" because the deal would allow them to speed up their charge of preserving and restoring parcels that might otherwise become subdivisions. Others were adamantly opposed to "doing business with the enemy," afraid such a risky endeavor would repel donors and be antithetical to their mission.  And, a few middle-of-the-roaders wanted to talk it out.

Ultimately, the 17-member board opted for the wait-and-see approach.

"Today, we're still sort of at a standstill," says Lumia, who has a degree in economics from Lehigh University and a master's in environmental science and land use management from the University of Pennsylvania. "We have a reputation to uphold. We don't want to be perceived as participating in something that's not too environmentally friendly."

For now, the board has articulated that no gas company will be allowed to build a drilling pad on property the land trust owns. Board members might consider allowing a company to drill horizontally for natural gas cached beneath the Howland Preserve — as long as the above-ground infrastructure is situated elsewhere.

"We're not saying yes and we're not saying no. We're going to see what plays out," Lumia explains. "Basically, we don't think the regulations in place are strong enough and we don't feel comfortable."

No matter which way the board eventually leans, he emphasizes, the land trust will lose donors and supporters who disagree.

"Barring any lightning bolt from heaven, nobody is going to stop these guys in their tracks just by saying how awful they think it is," Lumia continues, referring to the repercussions of hydraulic fracturing.

Lax state regulations will become more stringent only if citizens rail on their state legislators, he insists.

"Unless changes are made, we're all going to be left holding the bag," Lumia says. "The power structure in the state is just sitting on its hands and not doing anything. They're hemming and hawing."

The long-absent sun makes a brief afternoon appearance on this overcast day with the lingering bite of winter as Lumia treks back downhill through the meadow and through a corridor of Norway spruce trees. The intense and thoughtful 48-year-old crosses an abandoned railroad bed and remnants of the North Branch Canal before stopping at the Howland Preserve southern boundary on an oxbow of the Susquehanna River.

Across the rapidly flowing waterway, a slope thick with evergreens and elegant rock outcroppings, rises steeply. 

"It's an eye-opener ... and a hot potato," Lumia says about the fracking fracas erupting across an enormous swath of the Keystone State. "A majority of the drilling is in rural Pennsylvania. We're talking about changing the landscape to high-end industrial. It's going to be pretty messy for the next five or 10 years.

"We're going to have all kinds of environmental issues. Once rural and quiet areas are not going to be so rural and quiet."

While it's easy to dismiss those opposed to hydraulic fracturing as conveniently falling back on the NIMBY, or "not in my backyard" argument, Lumia emphasizes that would be an oversimplification of the situation.

"I'm scared about this," he concludes, referring to the frenzied expansion of natural gas extraction. "When I think about the national and global energy picture, what's the domino effect if we say no to this? Does it mean more coal mines? It's a tough call."

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