Stamatakis: Drilling screws uneven few

By Nick Stamatakis

It isn’t fair when your brother gets more Oreos than you. It just ain’t right.

We learn… It isn’t fair when your brother gets more Oreos than you. It just ain’t right.

We learn the rules every year as we grow up — pre-schoolers get equal time on the jungle gym, fifth graders get equal punishments for pulling Mary’s hair and every tenth grader gets equally misunderstood and hormonal.

It’s no surprise, then, that opponents of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale oppose it partially because the negative effects are concentrated among so few people. It’s not just that drilling potentially pollutes water and creates ugly containment pools as I noted last week, but that it affects a small amount of people disproportionately.

The fact is that it is unfair. It’s like rural Pennsylvanians are becoming the nerds of the state — the jocks and popular kids in the cities pressure them into doing all the work for the school project. While the cool kids go to sock hops and drive-ins, or in this case, enjoy lower energy prices and increased revenue, the nerd is stuck working on a stupid PowerPoint and missing the opportunity to go to his first-ever Steelers game … I may need to find a better outlet for this.

Of course, instead of having to do a PowerPoint alone, rural Pennsylvanians deal with the inconveniences of drilling, like loud trucks and potential well-water contamination. Yes, many of the economic benefits of drilling are felt in these areas too, but there are pockets where drilling is a net loss. It’s all just high school social rules played up on a much bigger stage — a small fraction of the population feels the brunt of the responsibility.

It feels wrong. Equality is obviously a good thing — nobody cites bullying nerds as a good method for governance. After all, as noted by political scientists Blue Wooldridge and Susan Gooden, the government has been using equality as a standard for good policy to prevent nerds from being bullied since the 1960s. Nobody wants to make things less equal if they don’t need to be.

But as unfortunate as it may be, certain groups of people are always going to get bullied. Point State Park, the green triangle at the tip of Downtown, might be nothing more than warehouses if government officials hadn’t forced people to leave. As noted in a Post-Gazette article, the land was acquired through eminent domain, meaning landowners had to give up their land — for compensation — whether they wanted to or not.

A more dramatic example is the Kinzua Dam at the northern end of the Allegheny River. Built in the ‘60s, it required the forced relocation of the last Seneca Indians living in the state from their native area. Their land was to be flooded in the new reservoir. The Seneca were compensated but were forcibly removed by government decree against their will.

Yet not doing so would have caused up to a billion dollars worth of flood damage downstream and possibly would have led to a number of casualties. Plus, the dam creates electricity and provides tourism opportunities. It was an ugly trade-off that had to be made.

In these cases, groups were compensated. Not compensating rural Pennsylvanians for any hardship is a gross violation of the government’s job to try to keep things as equal as possible. If there isn’t some form of tax or a fund to fix any mistakes that could occur as part of the drilling process, then the government isn’t fulfilling its role of protecting rights.

And it’s also important to point out that this should not be a knee-jerk process. There are many instances when such unequal processes didn’t even lead to actual positives. The failed urban renewal schemes of the Lower Hill District and East Liberty come to mind.

But remember, without a little bit of inequality, no road, train track, bridge, stadium, college campus or even Taco Bell would ever be built. Every project has costs that ultimately are distributed unevenly. Compensation is all we can do to even out the necessary inequities that progress requires.

Extracting our mineral wealth is progress. Sadly, as a lowly sixth grader, I was not compensated for working on that stupid PowerPoint. Hopefully though, Harrisburg has more compassion than a sixth grader.

E-mail Nick at [email protected]