What Conservatives Need to Understand about the Downside of Drilling

A lot of drilling pads are showing up across America, and in Pennsylvania, in places where only forests or sagebrush previously grew.  These were relatively untouched wildlife habitat and clean watershed areas, and the sudden appearance of these facilities naturally caused people to become upset.  That is because the high level of visual disturbance in such remote places is significant and harsh on the eye, and often the nose, too.  Places that required hard won first-hand knowledge through careful exploration for hunters to access safely are now accessed every ten minutes by huge rumbling trucks on wide gravel roads.  Getting the products from these drill sites to market then requires long pipelines and their rights-of-way, often also running through once pristine de facto wild areas, or through scenic farming areas closer to civilization.  Without careful management, invasive plants and animals then aggressively exploit these new openings in the forest to quickly expand their range, at the cost of the native plants and animals we hunt living there.

As a rule, as resource development expands, remote places are getting harder and harder to find and enjoy everywhere, for hunters, trappers, fishermen, hikers, campers, biologists studying wild plants and animals, and so on.  These new drilling sites raise the bigger policy question of how and why they are cropping up and whether it is a good thing.  Plenty of political advocacy groups are strongly against these drilling sites.

This is the "bitter" side.

This well pad was prime bear hunting habitat, until it wasn't and won't be for at least a hundred years from now.  Another new nearby well pad overlooking Trout Run was the most beautiful spot I've ever deer hunted in.  Gone.

On the big-picture, macro side, America is energy-independent only as a result of all the relatively new horizontal hydro-fracking now happening in both new and old oil and gas fields across the nation, including the Marcellus and Utica shale "plays" here in Pennsylvania.  That fracking has resulted in unbelievable quantities of oil and gas being pulled from the depths.

Being energy-independent allows America to be policy-independent.  That is, by being able to independently support our citizenry's own extensive energy demands (like keeping hospitals and schools constantly supplied with electricity), America is free to make policy decisions that are best for her and her central interests alone, without the fear of being punished in turn by foreign nations that also have extensive reserves of hydrocarbon energy.  There's Russia, which has used the delivery of natural gas to western Europe as a political weapon.  There's China, which has been aggressively buying up and gaining control of coal, gas, and oil deposits around the world, while simultaneously aggressively confronting American interests on possible military battlefields in Asia.  There's Iran, which has used oil revenue to develop nuclear weapons directly aimed at destroying America.

This is the "sweet" side to more drilling.

In the big picture, there is no pro-America perspective that drilling on our public lands is a bad thing, because it is such an absolutely necessary thing.  If you love America and want us to succeed, it is impossible to ignore this reality.  None of the "green" plans and policies represented as offsetting increased supply from new drilling and extraction works.  They are all based on incredibly coercive government policies that directly punish individual citizens for simply living middle-income American lifestyles.  My opinion is that these "green" policies are really aimed at hurting America, not at protecting its environment.

On the local, micro side, there is no question that drilling is an often personally painful thing.  Drilling pads cluttered with metal, machines, pipes, and pumps are unsightly, no matter where they are placed.  In an otherwise serene state forest that, here in Pennsylvania, has undoubtedly seen more bears than people in the past hundred years, a drilling pad looks like a bomb crater, or a Martian invasion landing site.  It is ugly and does not fit in.  I understand and support why it is here, but I still don't like experiencing it.

Previously, access in this area was gained through hard work and good woodcraft.  Now you simply can't.

On the landscape and micro scale, drilling can be sad to heartbreaking, depending on the number of roads cut into previously untouched areas we used to hunt bear and buck in, and which saw no other humans the rest of the year after we departed at the end of the hunting season.  Tiny unnamed mountaintop brookie (native brook trout) streams suddenly were tamed with culverts, with wind-blown or discarded Snickers wrappers from some worker collected and spinning lazily around and around in the slow current at the culvert's tail end. 

When armchair conservatives ignore or pooh-pooh this very real downside to drilling, they only enrage and empower their opponents as well as otherwise non-political public lands–users.  That is, people perennially living in artificially controlled 72-degree environments, disconnected physically and emotionally from the wild and natural landscape, who yet evince strong opinions about that same wild landscape, are living in the same kind of artificial bubble that the leftist anti-extraction advocates are living in.  Advocating for massive public land drilling plans, without acknowledging the simultaneous need for mitigating the inevitable damage, is just the same old rapacious, destructive, selfish, cut-and-run mentality Americans have seen play out in past natural resource booms.  We must be beyond that now.

Many state and federal public lands were purchased with Federal Land & Water Conservation Fund money.  Since oil and gas drilling (and mineral mining) has caused some of that land to be lost to hunting, trapping, hiking, and camping, public agencies must directly remediate those losses by adding new public lands or purchasing conservation easements on adjoining lands.

Specifically here in Pennsylvania, our oil and gas fund has been hijacked by both political parties and used for general budget offsets and vote-buying projects instead of being fully reinvested into the state forests and parks it came from and was designed to protect.  I am strongly for oil and gas development, but Pennsylvania, and the U.S. resource agencies, must follow the law and precedent and fully reinvest the oil, gas, and mineral funds back into the public lands the money came from.  Our public lands are not a one-time, one-way cash cow.  Everywhere public lands are impacted, they must be subsequently augmented with new land acquisitions or protection to offset the acreage lost to development and fragmentation. 

Josh First is a wilderness hunter, trapper, and fisherman, businessman, and conservative political activist in Pennsylvania.

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