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As Anti-Drilling Push Unfolds, Penn State Campus Could Land in No-Drill Zone

on July 25, 2011 7:45 AM

For generations, Braden Crooks' family has maintained a farm in Clarion County, in western Pennsylvania.

Its lifeblood, as with so many other homesteads in that rural expanse of Pennsylvania, is its well water.

"If we don't have the well water, we can't live there," Crooks explained to me last week. "That's very direct -- very personal."

That direct, personal connection is helping to drive his leadership of Groundswell PA, the new environmental-advocacy group that Crooks, a 2011 Penn State landscape-architecture graduate, founded.

We've written before about Groundswell, whose most immediate goal is to place, on State College general-election ballot for November, a voter referendum on an environmental bill of rights.

The measure, if approved through a popular vote, would revise the borough home-rule charter to underscore borough residents' rights to clear air and clean water -- rights already prescribed under the state constitution.

It also would say that residents have a right to sustainable energy; that ecosystems have the rights to clean air and water; that future gas drilling is banned within the borough; and that any "non-sustainable energy production" would be persona non grata in State College proper.

The effort has already gained support from borough Mayor Elizabeth Goreham and some Borough Council candidates, including incumbents Peter Morris and Theresa Lafer and challenger Sarah Klinetob. But to get on the November ballot, Crooks, 23, and his Groundswell colleagues will need to gather just more than 700 petition signatures by Aug. 8.

Only borough residents may sign the petition.

By the middle of last week, about a month into the petition drive, Groundswell had collected just more than 500 signatures, Crooks said. He's confident that the subject will make its way to the November ballot.

And if it does, his research suggests, State College will be among the first handful of places in the world to host a popular vote on environmental rights. Several other Pennsylvania communities -- including the City of Pittsburgh -- are in the midst of similar campaigns.

"It's not partisan," Crooks said. He said those who've signed the State College petition cross generations and partisan lines, from environmentally minded Penn State academics to Tea Party folks who value the ideal of local control.

The underlying idea, as he sees it, is really pretty conservative: a recognition that the health of the natural environment has bold and direct influence on human health, the health of our communities and the longterm viability of where we live.

Sure, skeptics may ask: Will the gas companies really try to drill for gas and deploy hydraulic fracturing -- the highly questionable, chemical-infused process used to open up the Marcellus Shale gas reserves -- here in State College? I was a skeptic, too -- at first.

But Crooks is convincing. Until Pittsburgh banned gas drilling within the city limits last year, gas companies there had been trying to use hydraulic fracturing -- or "fracking" -- under city neighborhoods, as Crooks noted.

Plus, while no gas-drilling prospects appear imminent in State College right now, the borough does rest atop the Utica Shale, another gas-rich reserve thought to be a successor to the Marcellus.

The truth is, science hasn't yet fully revealed the longterm effects of fracking -- and the chemicals it involves -- on our health, on our groundwater, on our environment at large.

As Pennsylvanians, we have one opportunity to get this right. A few unwitting missteps, and the consequences for our water supplies -- our very ability to call this incredible place our home -- could be deeply jeopardized. Actually, that jeopardy has already arrived on rural landscapes across the state.

Is it worth it?

Feels like a growing number of commonwealth residents are offering a resounding "no."

At the same time, as Crooks emphasized in our conversation, Penn State has gained a reputation as a driller defender.

He pointed out this rich irony: The university's flagship University Park campus sits almost entirely in the Borough of State College. That means the Penn State mothership itself could soon be in a no-drill zone.

"When we get this on the ballot, I think it's going to be a very interesting turn of events" concerning Penn State, Crooks said.

He has tweaked the university before, having lobbied -- with other Penn State environmentalists -- for a more dramatic shift to renewable energy sources at University Park. Crooks and his colleagues at Penn State Eco-Action objected to the recent trustees decision to shift a campus steam-and-power plant from coal to natural gas, arguing that natural gas is hardly sustainable.

To me, the especially cool thing about Crooks' activism is its lack of coercion. When we met last week, he said he encourages people -- all people -- to do their own research on natural-gas drilling, to find their own sources of information, to draw their own conclusions. He isn't asking people to make Groundswell their sole source of information on the matter.

He's asking people to think for themselves.

That confidence in the value of the cause -- well, it speaks for itself.

No slick public-relations campaigns necessary.

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