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Planning for a 21st Century Gold Rush

By Adam Blair
January 26, 2011

Don’t look west for what could be the modern-day equivalent of the American gold rush; look to the east, where parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are sitting atop enough shale to supply the entire nation’s natural gas needs for the next quarter-century. Driven by the immense profit potential stored thousands of feet below the surface, gas companies have streamlined a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which a mixture of high-pressured water, sand, and chemicals is forced into the ground, splitting the Marcellus Shale to allow gas to flow freely. The fracking fluid is then removed so gas can be extracted, transported, and sold. Once the shale play is exhausted of its resources, companies move on to the next piece of property and drill another well.

This fast-growing industry is not only uncovering the extent of nimbyism in a country founded on beliefs of individual freedom and liberty, but testing the limits of local planning processes as well. Not surprisingly, the issue has become highly politicized and has exposed a myriad of concerns. Of paramount importance is the solicitude for public safety, as gas wells intersect underground aquifers, where many rural communities get their water. If the drilling process is not properly regulated, the use of chemicals in such close proximity to sources of fresh water poses a risk of contamination.

Critical as it may be, this dialogue surrounding contamination and safety has effectively overshadowed other key issues that should also be on planners’ radar. More specifically, planners should prepare for both the positive and negative externalities the rapid emergence of an entire industry will have on the built environment. Charged with transporting water, chemicals, and drilling equipment, thousands of truck trips on public roads will likely be made. Furthermore, the demand for housing a quickly expanding and transient workforce may exceed the supply in many small communities. There is also a question of economic development, as gas companies may provide jobs and tax revenue, but at the cost of heavier traffic, strained public infrastructure, environmental risk, and so on.

While planning for the boom is important, similar to a gold rush, many places may expand rapidly, only to become ghost towns after the shale is tapped. Therefore, planners should also think about communities post-drilling, and whether this influx will provide lasting economic benefit. The prospect of natural gas exploration is about so much more than what happens on a drill site; rapid expansion of a niche industry demands a rapid response from planners, as the built environment will be affected in countless ways.

The energy industry is highly profitable, and the potential for profit motivates companies to develop the technologies needed to supply us consumers with what we need to maintain the lifestyles we want. This incentive structure is good; but at what cost—to the natural environment and human welfare—does this energy dependence come at?

We may be unable to change the fact that gas drilling is a profit-seeking industry that may be responsible for unintentional consequences. And we may be unable to prevent the fact that thousands of landowners will act in their best interest and sign land leases with gas companies, not fully understanding the impact drilling might have on their neighbors. But, as planners, we have the opportunity to act with foresight as advocates for those who could ultimately pay the cost for the actions of others. To me, drilling in the Marcellus Shale signifies a call to action for planners and those working toward more just, sustainable communities. Let’s embrace this opportunity and make sure things are done right.