Drilling revenue hard to pass up for Western Pennsylvania nonprofits
In Bradford County where Penn State University professors study forests, and in summer camps where Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts frolic, cash-strapped nonprofit groups are going underground to help solve their money woes.
They hope to strike paydirt in the natural gas of the Marcellus shale.
Nonprofit experts say the Marcellus shale is forcing local charities to weigh the need for a regular stream of money during tight times versus the potential impact on the environment and the groups' programs.
"There's nothing simple about the Marcellus shale and how nonprofits react to it," said Peggy M. Outon, executive director of the Bayer Center for Nonprofit Management at Robert Morris University.
Youth groups, museums and colleges have leased the drilling rights to their land or are considering it. The Carnegie Museums of Natural History are considering whether to permit drilling at its Powdermill Nature Reserve in Westmoreland County, and the board of the Sarah Heinz House will discuss Monday an inquiry on behalf of East Resources Management.
"It's an amazing windfall for nonprofits seeking to enhance their mission," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group representing drillers and other companies.
Penn State University signed a lease in June with Chesapeake Gas & Oil for a well on land it owns in Bradford County.
The lease provides no access to the surface of the property so as to minimize the environmental impact, Penn State spokeswoman Annemarie Mountz said in an e-mail. Access would have to come through a neighbor's property.
The Greater Pittsburgh Council of the Boy Scouts of America created a committee of board members who studied the issue for a year. It included people with expertise in law, banking and the gas industry, but not from a company drilling in the Marcellus shale.
Ultimately, the council's 114-member board unanimously approved two leases, one with Burnett Oil for the 300-acre Twin Echo Camp near Ligonier and the other with Range Resources for 260-acre Camp Anawanna in Washington County.
Scout Executive Mike Surbaugh says the camps will remain pristine because the leases do not allow equipment or drilling on site. Instead, the leases permit sideways drilling from the camps' neighbors.
"If drilling commences tomorrow, you wouldn't be aware of it," he said. Surbaugh declined to say how much money the Boy Scouts will make, but said the profits will go into maintaining the two camps.
The Girl Scouts Western Pennsylvania was contacted by Rex Energy earlier this year and signed a lease, effective in April, for 130-acre Camp Redwing in Butler County. Its lease allows drilling on the surface.
"Trust me," said Pat Burkart, CEO of the Girl Scouts' local chapter. "We would not have entered into this lease if we thought there would be any disruption to the program for the girls or any health hazard."
Burkart said fundraising is estimated to lag more than $500,000 below projections this year, and the gas revenue will make up more than half of that. The main priority is to fix up the organization's camps. The local chapter has 15 camps, but plans to sell eight during the next four years.
Not all nonprofit groups are gushing over gas.
The North Side-based Sarah Heinz House has been teaching children how to swim, boat and live outdoors at rustic Heinz Camp in Ellwood City since 1924. The camp, 4 miles from McConnell's Mill State Park, is where East Resources would like to drill.
Stanley Pittman, executive director of Sarah Heinz, said the extra money would be "wonderful" but adds, "I have some reservations with our property because we're located on Slippery Rock Creek. I would have to have a lot of assurances."
Energy companies have asked the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy about drilling on some of its 11,144 acres.
"We are a conservation organization," said spokeswoman Stephanie Kraynick. "In keeping with our mission, we have repeatedly denied requests to drill on our property."
Tom Murphy, president of Wild Waterways Conservancy, said it has decided not to allow drilling on its land in Butler, Lawrence and Beaver counties "for the time being until we're clear about the environmental impact."
Mars Home for Youth runs a 142-acre campus with homes for needy youths and an alternative school. In April, its board denied a request to drill.
"Given our proximity to Mars High School and the lack of sufficient regulations in place at this time, we didn't want to place the youth and staff on our campus or our surrounding neighborhood at risk," said Martin Harris, executive director of the home.