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Closing the divide over drilling

Aren't you sick of the gridlock? The refusal to compromise, the unwillingness to listen to the other side, the take-no-prisoners vituperation?

Aren't you sick of the gridlock? The refusal to compromise, the unwillingness to listen to the other side, the take-no-prisoners vituperation?

No, not Washington - Pennsylvania.

Natural-gas drilling is an issue on which communities should and could find common ground. But the angry tone of the debate is only driving us apart.

The polarization is only partly about the risk of environmental damage. In the county where we live, for example, drilling has brought long-simmering social tensions to the surface.

After decades of seeing few newcomers, Wayne County has experienced an influx of transplants from more urban areas such as Philadelphia and New Jersey, many seeking a quieter life or at least quieter weekends. There is unspoken tension between the county's rural culture and the urban one of the new arrivals.

You can spot the differences around town. City people drive different cars, eat at different restaurants, and wear different clothes. Many don't socialize extensively with the farming families that have been in the area for generations. Many are more affluent and educated. And too many assume they are smarter or more knowledgeable than the longtime residents - even about the land and environment with which they're relatively unfamiliar.

While gas companies that have shortchanged landowners or cut environmental corners deserve criticism, too many anti-drilling newcomers also demonize longtime residents who are open to responsible drilling. Often, those protesting loudest do not have much at stake but want to make decisions for those who do.

We might be able to deal with drilling more intelligently if clear, unbiased scientific information were available and accessible to the public. But few will wade through the 80-plus pages of the Delaware River Basin Commission's draft regulations or the hundreds of pages of New York's draft environmental impact statement. Instead, they rely on received "wisdom" from those with vested interests.

Pertinent questions are going unanswered: How do we prevent gas from contaminating aquifers? Can we safely recycle wastewater? Could a spill affect Philadelphia's water supply?

In the absence of solid information, hyperbole is crowding out reality. While Penn State's Marcellus Shale website is a good first step, it is limited. We are largely left to wonder.

Government, meanwhile, should be acting as a lead arbiter and lowering the temperature of the debate. While gas drilling will mean jobs, tax revenue, and energy security, its exemption from federal oversight has severely undermined public confidence. And the companies involved have done little to allay legitimate concerns.

There are a few straightforward steps that can be taken easily. First, government should enforce locally adapted best practices across the board. Second, the region's landowners should obtain baseline water tests to make it easier to gauge contamination. Finally, going forward, landowners should insist on better environmental protection practices, including closed-loop drilling, waterless fracking, and wastewater recycling.

Gas exploration is not an unqualified blessing. There may be accidents, even if they are rare, and insufficient oversight, protections, and information increase the risk. And no one wants to see the region's water ruined. Weekenders prize the area's beauty and character, and value their investments in their homes. Longtime residents have even more at risk, including the land that's been handed down for generations and that provides their livelihood.

And while environmentalists have helped by pushing for better land and water protection, the region's reflexive opponents of drilling must respect those who sign gas leases and believe exploration can be done safely and responsibly.

We have both lived in the Marcellus Shale region for decades, neighbors a few miles apart. One of us signed a gas lease; the other did not. We spend long hours discussing what's best for the region. Please join us.