A fair share of the profits

Marcellus drill rig in Loyalsock State ForestIn another life, another state, Mom came home one afternoon and told me about a van parked beside the road a couple hundred yards from our driveway. You notice things like that out in the country, where no one lives except you. You cannot pretend the vehicle might belong to someone visiting your neighbor because you don’t have any neighbors. Not within walking distance of the parked van, anyway.

So I went out to look around, and discovered someone had been using a hand saw to cut birch trees into four-foot logs, then loading them into the van and selling them at the mill in town, for about $70 a cord, where they would be sliced into veneer to cover particle board bedroom furniture and make it look expensive.

I didn’t mind the guy cutting the trees; there were plenty, and if he needed firewood he could not pay for, maybe there was enough to share. But when I learned what he really was doing, I became a mite irritated. Mom was paying the taxes, and if there was profit to be made, she should be making it.

And now the natural gas industry is basically doing the same thing up in northern part of the state, where not many people live and except for drill rigs looming over the treetops for a few weeks, and a multitude of 50-foot-wide slice over yon mountains where a pipeline will carry the booty to market, the work goes largely unnoticed.

Like Mom, we have been paying to maintain and preserve our forests, and now someone is coming in and cutting it up and making off with the profits. We should be thankful, we have been told, for those who, however temporarily, brought in out-of-state drill rig workers, creating thousands of jobs for waitresses and new car dealers and hoteliers – many of whom are now unemployed since the bulk of the drillers have moved on.

Our lawmakers, in their refusal to extract a share of the cash, claim the natural gas market is depressed, and now is a poor time to tax the industry for its production. The depressed market pricing is a situation that will exist only until export terminals and thousands of miles of planned new pipelines open markets and drive up the price of the fuel. It has happened before. I am old enough to remember when the big push was all-electric homes. Electric appliances saved time, and electric heat was cleaner than coal-burning furnaces.

There were time-saving kitchen appliances, and vacuum cleaners, and a broad array of other wonderful electric gadgets – and that was before computer and huge-screen televisions. And when taxpayers had helped electrify the countryside, there came all manner of excuses to justify the increased rates that accompanied them. And more gadgets to use more electricity.

Republican lawmakers, who currently control the legislature, have thus far refused to place a price tag on the resources below their constituents’ feet. They would have us believe any attempt at taxing the industry at levels it pays in the other gas-producing states would make the entire industry move elsewhere, presumably forcing Exxon-Mobil and Shell to simply drag the gas with them to, say, West Virginia.

But West Virginia already imposes a severance tax on natural gas production. So does Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, North Dakota and other states where large amounts of oil and gas are being extracted – but not Pennsylvania.

Think of it as profit sharing. We have our own bills to pay, and if we are to watch our forests be sliced and diced to enable for-profit exploitation of our natural resources, we should demand a fair share of the profits.

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