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A fossil-fuel economy: observations from our past

November 24, 2011

The issue of drilling for natural gas in the Upper Delaware region is changing life drastically, physically in terms of economy, land, water and air, and relationally in the way people treat each other. Comments in editorials, Delaware River Basin Commission hearings and the like indicate that this industry is causing us to be a divided community. We all seem to want economic and environmental health and a strong community characterized by respect and kindness. What perspective might we gain by considering another nearby fossil fuel industry from a previous generation?

Anthracite coal provided employment for those living in the region and resulted in a large influx of immigrants who came to work in the area. After the 1959 Knox Mine Disaster, coal was no longer a dominant economic force. People had to move elsewhere to find work. The anthracite region had to search for other industries to be sustained economically. Coal companies had earned the profits, but after the industry left, the economically bereft public was handed the bill to clean up the environment. A quick glance at the scarred landscape, culm banks and crumbling breakers, news about cave-ins and underground fires all indicate that the restoration effort is far from over.

With dead and dying trees lining tributaries, officials with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission say the impact of acid mine drainage remains the biggest challenge to efforts to preserve ecosystems. In our Upper Delaware area, after gas companies and landowners earn the profits, will the clean-up cost be socialized as it was for the coal industry? Once traditional farmers become dependent on natural gas for income, and their land, water and air is exposed to toxins, will they, their children and their grandchildren return to farming?

Regardless of how many safeguards we put into place, there will still be unforeseen consequences. People are imperfect. We make mistakes. We compromise when we think no one is looking. Mining natural gas is more complicated and invasive than it was for anthracite coal. What has been in the making for millions of years can be mined out in the course of one generation. What will be the long-term consequences?