Happy anniversary, Marcellus!

Published Oct 24, 2014 at 11:15 am (Updated Oct 24, 2014 at 11:35 am)

Anniversaries tend to be retrospective. When we mark them, we often look back to where things began. As time passes, we attach more significance to some than to others, such as decadal anniversaries: 10, 20, 50 or 100. It is an arbitrary choice, but that is what we do.

With that in mind, let us celebrate a 10th anniversary. There are lots of 2004 candidates: It was a leap year. It was Bush versus Kerry for president. Facebook was founded and Google went public. NASA put a rover on Mars and the South Koreans cloned a human embryo. Ronald Reagan, Ray Charles and Marlon Brando all passed away. And in Pennsylvania, Hurricane Ivan dropped seven inches of rain on us, slot machines were legalized and Ben Roethlisberger made his first NFL start.

All interesting, but this is an energy column, so, of course, the 10th anniversary I am talking about is the drilling of the first Marcellus well (Renz #1) by Range Resources here in Washington County.

It is common for events whose anniversaries we now celebrate to go unrecognized as important when they first occur. I doubt anyone, even farsighted geologists and petroleum engineers, imagined that 10 years after the first well was drilled, the Marcellus Shale play would become the largest natural gas field in the United States.

Moreover, the deployment of directional drilling and fracturing techniques in the Marcellus as well as shale formations in places like North Dakota and Texas has literally changed America's conversation about energy. Where once we spoke in worried terms about growing dependence on unstable areas of the world for our energy, we now talk about energy independence and exporting oil and gas to global markets because America will soon be the world's largest oil and gas producing country.

For Pennsylvania, the Marcellus boom has meant new economic activity as well as revenue for the state, counties and municipalities impacted by drilling. It has meant job opportunities and lower energy costs for Pennsylvanians compared with energy-poor states.

It has also meant new environmental and social challenges. The unprecedented number of new wells drilled with the new technologies required Pennsylvania to look hard at its controlling statutes. To its credit, the Legislature acted to develop a new framework of regulations for a new industry. And while we still debate the particulars of regulation, I am proud our state rose to that challenge.

Washington County has experienced in microcosm all the economic, environmental and social changes that have occurred across Pennsylvania. For landowners, while some have objected to drilling, many have secured their financial futures by leasing their gas rights. For business, new companies have come to places like Southpointe and many existing businesses expanded significantly to serve the drillers or become drillers themselves. And for government, the challenge of balancing development and preservation ­– of land, of infrastructure, or way of life – remains ongoing, but is at least being funded by tax revenues from the industry.

All told, it has been a consequential 10 years. Happy anniversary, Marcellus, and many more!

Jeff Kotula is president of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce and the Washington County Tourism Promotion Agency.

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