In Beaver County, Shale is on the Ballot

  • State Rep. Jim Christiana, a pro-drilling Republican, at a "town hall" in Hopewell, Pa. Photo: Reid R. Frazier


October 20, 2012
By Reid R. Frazier

For one GOP legislator, Pennsylvania needs to go full speed ahead with drilling in the Marcellus shale. No looking back. And he thinks voters in his district will agree with him.

Rep. Jim Christiana, (R-Beaver County) says that’s why he voted for Act 13, a controversial bill that took away the ability for municipalities to regulate hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, through local zoning laws. Without this provision, he says, it’s doubtful Shell would go ahead with plans for a multi-billion ethane cracking plant in his district, on the banks of the Ohio River.

“Do you want the jobs and the industrial activity or do you want locals being able to manage this issue and potentially cost this area jobs?” said Rep. Jim Christiana, (R-Beaver County). “They can’t have it both ways.”

But his Democratic opponent wants to re-write Act 13 to allow for townships, boroughs and cities to restrict where fracking is allowed in their boundaries. (The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is weighing a lawsuit brought by several municipalities looking to strike down this provision of the bill.)

“I would look to repeal, I would have not voted for Act 13 as it was presented...on the basis of it took away zoning,”  said Bob Williams, a Democrat realtor who is also on the planning board for Hopewell Township, Beaver county.

The race for the 15th legislative district, a mix of old milltowns and suburbs that hug the Ohio river, is one of a handful of ‘competitive’ house races in the state, according to the House Democrats.

Christiana, 29, was first elected to the legislature four years ago. Before going into politics, he had a job as a salesman at a Mercedes-Benz dealership.

At a recent “town hall” meeting in Hopewell, he was using all his salesmanship to try to convince a small group of voters that his way was best. He wanted full exploitation of the Marcellus, and the eventual petrochemical industry that could bring.

Shell has proposed buidling an ethane cracker, which would take a natural gas by-product found in the marcellus and convert it to plastic. This would, in turn, spawn a new plastics and petrochemicals boom along the banks of the Ohio River, Christiana said.  None of this would be possible if local communities were able to slow down the drilling in the region. Pennsylvania has over 6,000 Marcellus shale wells. Nor would it be possible without a multi-million dollar tax break from the state.

“People are calling it a hand out to big business, taking taxpayer money, and it’s corporate welfare,” he said, sketching out his ideas with a magic marker on a big pad of paper in front of the room. “I don’t think that’s accurate.”

Not everyone in the crowd was so receptive. “You are not protecting our environment,” one woman said.

One man asked if he’d like to live next to a gas well. “I would not be opposed to it,” Christiana told him.

For Christiana, the gas and other hydrocarbons under Western Pennsylvania are key to the region’s future. And the key to it is Act 13. Christiana, like most GOP legislators in the state, voted in favor of the bill. It imposed a fee on Marcellus wells, and increased the distance requirements between new gas wells and buildings like houses and schools, though not as far as environmentalists would have liked.

“It was a pretty good bill and if we waited for the perfect bill, we would have had less regulations, less tax revenue coming in,” Christiana said. He thinks Shell wouldn’t build the petrochemical plant it’s proposed in Beaver County without a steady stream of gas from the Marcellus. And driller-friendly provisions of Act 13-- like the pre-emption of local zoning--encourage companies to keep that supply coming.

“If we don’t get this right we have potential of losing a $6 billion plant 15 miles down the road in West Virginia, 15 miles down the road in Ohio, I’m not really willing to do that,” Christiana said.

For his part, Williams says the Corbett administration and his GOP allies--like Christiana--have been too cozy with the drilling industry. Still, he says, he’s in favor of drilling.

He says he wants more safeguards for the environment and public health, though he offers few specifics on these.

Still, he wants to make clear—he wants there to be Marcellus drilling.

“It’s gotta happen. We’ve got to make it happen,” Williams said. “But we have to make sure that everybody is protected, it’s not just always about the bottom line.”

In November, voters will get a chance to decide which position they like best.