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Ridge: Gas wells mean jobs

| Friday, Feb. 4, 2011

The shale gas industry is like the auto business -- it might hurt some people, but the jobs it brings to a struggling economy make it worthwhile, gas industry pitchman and former Gov. Tom Ridge said Thursday.

"You don't quit building automobiles because some people are going to crash and kill themselves," said Ridge, who spoke at Carnegie Mellon University. "You have to manage the risk. Capitalism and entrepreneurialism is risk management."

Ridge, whose Washington-based consulting company makes $75,000 a month from a coalition of gas drillers, led a presentation on Marcellus shale gas drilling to open the university's 21st annual Distinguished Lecture Series in Environmental Science, Technology and Policy. It's an industry that could improve life in long-struggling rural Pennsylvania towns, he said.

The former Republican governor got a warm reception and applause from a crowd of about 250. But several drilling opponents in the audience criticized him for his relationship with the industry and for not visiting residents near the 400 well sites in Washington County.

"We would like people to be informed of what Mr. Ridge is doing here so they can consider that what he's going to say is possibly biased," said Edith Wilson, 67, of Edgewood, one of several people who handed out leaflets about Ridge's industry ties. "I've been treated for cancer, and I sure don't want anything floating around in the air that could infect anyone else."

The Marcellus shale is a mile-deep layer of rocks rich with natural gas. It stretches from Tennessee to New York, but the busiest sweet spots for drillers have been found in Washington County and northeastern Pennsylvania. Scientists predict there could be 50,000 or more wells drilled statewide.

The shale drilling explosion began in Texas a decade ago. Tales of spoiled water, chemicals spills and cancer -- along with documented air pollution, damaged roads and clear-cut forest land -- have followed. But scientists have drawn few conclusions about the full effects of the industry and the root causes of these problems.

"We have one chance to do it right, and I believe that chance is now," Ridge said, pledging that cheap, domestic gas can help the country stay competitive and put money into poor rural towns where most of the drilling occurs. "Things will happen out there, folks. Remember you have to manage the risk."

Mike Domach, a chemical engineering professor at CMU, asked Ridge about leases for drilling in state forests. He owns property in Clinton County and said he has seen roads and forests ruined in the state's wilderness by truck traffic and well development. Ridge told him that drilling companies should restore the land when they leave.

"But this is going to be a protracted process. I guess we can look forward to all these places getting broke every year and then fixed every year," Domach said later. "I'm not averse to development, but I just think the state is totally unprepared for what's being unleashed here."

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