Earlier this month we visited some relatives in western and central Pennsylvania.

A cousin who lives near Williamsport took us up into the hills above her house to see a drilling platform for one of the many companies exploiting the Marcellus shale, a treasure-trove of natural gas that hides beneath eight eastern states.

The first sign of the site was a cleared right of way coming down from a hilltop, leading to the drilling pad itself: a flat structure about the size of two football fields resting in a saddle between two hills.

The pad covered a half-dozen holes that went down thousands of feet (far below the water table), awaiting activation once a pipeline was built in the right of way.

The holes, which extended horizontally for thousands of feet in all directions, would be used for “fracking” — injecting water mixed with a small percentage of chemicals into the shale to break up the rock and force the gas to the surface.

Fracturing the rock gives fracking its name, and the process is controversial, with some claiming it pollutes groundwater and even puts enough gas into wells to cause fires in houses. But investigations have yielded no evidence of that, with anecdotal examples almost entirely shown to be due to other causes.

Interestingly enough, Pennsylvania and New York, which both overlie the Marcellus strata, provide a real contrast between Luddite environmentalism and job-creating entrepreneurship.

In New York, the Democratic Party, which holds the governorship and the state Assembly, has so far prevented drilling for gas — and thus there are almost no new jobs.

In the Quaker State, however, solid Republican control in both executive and legislative branches has opened the door for drilling across a wide area.

One of the results I saw was a number of billboards all over Williamsport seeking people to work in the gas fields or study for skills valuable in the industry. The roads are full of trucks hauling pipes and drilling rigs, and Williamsport, perhaps coincidentally, was celebrating the opening of a Kohls store that the local paper said was “the first new downtown department store in 30 years.”

The April 24 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tells the story: “Career options in our region are expanding mightily due to Marcellus shale development.”

After listing many local and state training programs, the paper concluded, “How many years can we expect these jobs to be needed in this region? (An official) says it has been estimated that Marcellus shale development could continue for upwards of 50 years, ‘with well-paying jobs associated with this sustained production at every step of the way.’ “

What’s the lesson? Americans can now see the hypocrisy of a group of “green” lobbyists who chide us about our “dependence on foreign oil” while at the same time say and do everything they can to block domestic production, which is capable of providing economic stability and growth.

But in their view, fossil fuel itself is the problem, no matter how abundant or cheap it is. That is why they say we have an “addiction” to it, when really it empowers and enriches us.

Thus, green activists at the national level are sabotaging construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada (one of our two largest suppliers of imported oil; Mexico is next) that would link U.S. refineries with the huge Athabascan tar sands in the Canadian west.

Those sands, like the Marcellus and Utica gas deposits in the East and the newly confirmed Colorado discoveries, have the capability of replacing much of our overseas imports of oil and natural gas, a huge step on the way to telling the Saudis to go pound — well, sand.

Here’s the Aug. 24 Philadelphia Inquirer: “The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the (Marcellus) shale contains about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas and 3.4 billion barrels of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas liquids. The agency’s latest numbers are 42 times greater than its 2002 assessment, which said the shale contained about 2 trillion cubic feet of gas.”

In addition, U.S. oil reserves may total three times those of Saudi Arabia, but many sites are locked away by federal rules prohibiting their use.

Meanwhile, slowness in reopening the Gulf of Mexico to drilling has resulted in nearly a dozen rigs moving to other fields. We have a president who tells the Brazilians he will be happy to buy their oil, but bars our own drillers from creating jobs and fighting OPEC.

But that may not last forever. The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine contains this article: “The Americas, Not the Middle East, Will be the World Capital of Energy,” by Amy Myers Jaffe of Rice University.

She says, “By the 2020s, the capital of energy will likely have shifted back to the Western Hemisphere, where it was prior to the ascendancy of Middle Eastern megasuppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the 1960s.

“The U.S. endowment of unconventional oil is more than 2 trillion barrels, with another 2.4 trillion in Canada and 2 trillion-plus in South America — compared with conventional Middle Eastern and North African oil resources of 1.2 trillion. The problem was always how to unlock them economically.

“But since the early 2000s, the energy industry has largely solved that problem. Where Americans once fretted about meeting the country’s natural gas needs, they now worry about finding potential buyers for the country’s surplus. Meanwhile, onshore oil production in the United States, condemned to predictions of inexorable decline by analysts for two decades, is about to stage an unexpected comeback.”

And she concludes, “Peak oil? Not anytime soon.”

So how much longer will Americans put up with paying huge costs for a “scarce” resource when there is actually a glut of it under their feet — much of which their own government forbids them to tap?

I would guess, not much past November 2012.

M.D. Harmon is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6482 or at:

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