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September 21, 2012

Video, Story: Westminster considers leasing for gas drilling

NEW CASTLE — Westminster College is weighing economic benefits and environmental unknowns as it considers leasing school property to drill gas wells.

Dr. Richard Dorman, college president, Thursday told a gathering of students, faculty and New Wilmington residents that college trustees have not made any decision on signing mineral leases.

Marcellus and Utica shale formations in the western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio and northern West Virginia, “could mean there is more natural gas under us than in all of Saudi Arabia,” Dorman said.

The trustees, who recognize the economic and political benefits as well as the risks, are still collecting information, he noted.

“The purpose of this meeting is not to debate the merits of fracking. We want to explore and understand options and do the right thing. At this moment, we don’t know what that is.”

The meeting was hosted by the board’s property committee. Five trustees also attended.

Chairman Whitney Bohan said the committee has discussed possible leasing since February, and will make its recommendation to the board in November but “there has been no one viewpoint dominating discussion.”



Kenneth Romig, Westminster vice president for finance and management services, presented an overview of pros and cons that will be considered.

The college owns 340 acres and local property owners are receiving up to $3,250 per acre, paid upfront, he said. Royalties, paid on producing wells, represent another source of revenue.

Romig said Westminster could anticipate $2.6 million to $4.6 million over a 10- to 20-year period, depending on the number of wells, production, amount of acreage the price of gas and other factors.

“That sounds like a lot of money,” Romig said, “but there are a lot of unknowns and consider, over 10 years the college operating budget is $400 million.”

He also noted the campus is about 100 acres. Drilling sites would, most likely, be off campus.

Other considerations include possible water contamination, escaping methane gas, spills, fracking fluids, noise and light pollution, the unknown long-term effects of drilling, loss of property and the effect traffic will have on roads.

On the positive side, he noted, funds would be available for the college to use for endowments or capital programs, potential corporate partnerships that may be used for educational purposes, economic development for western Pennsylvania, reduction of dependency on foreign energy sources and reduction of coal-burning utilities.

About a dozen members of the college community, many biology and chemistry professors, urged college officials to proceed with care as the long range of new technology gas drilling is unknown.

•Sandra Webster reminded those present no one knew the long-term affects coal mining would have in the 1920s. “What will be the affect on water, on our wells?”

•Joe Balczon of the biology department also raised concerns for ground water and uncertainties and risks.

•Clarence Harms, director of Westminster Field Station, an outdoor laboratory for biological and environmental sciences, urged the trustees to “make a decision that is good for today, tomorrow and 50 years on.”

•Ann Throckmorton said the 50 acres of the field station and 40-acre College Woods is used for educational purposes and not expendable.

“The well in Pulaski (Township) is immense,” she said. “Do you want that behind the president’s house? That land is not being used.”

Others urged college officials to consider long-term impact saying there is “no rush, no urgency” to sign leases.

•Nora Boerner, night supervisor at the library, said she is concerned by health risks being seen in children in Colorado, “where they’ve had this for a while.” She said she is concerned for the children and people who have no voice in the issue. “Is the amount of money worth having no clean environment and raising the risks of having cancer?”

•John Robertson of the biology faculty, urged careful consideration. “Westminster College is something special in this community, an intellectual beacon. Consider the character of the community.”

•Jeffrey Bersett said trustees who will make the decision do not live in and have no personal ties to the community.

This drew a response from trustee Bob Buehner who said, “We love this place with our heart and soul.”

(Email: nlowry@ncnewsonline.com)

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