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U.S. Universities Consider Huge Shale Gas Windfall

Rachel Morgan, Shale Reporter

Westminster College has postponed a decision on whether to lease 340 acres of school-owned property for gas and oil rights, officials said Monday. The college, located in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, stands to gain $1 million upfront for signing the leases, in addition to royalty payments.

“No decision was made at the meeting,” said Mark Meighen, senior director of marketing and communications services at Westminster College.

The board of trustees and property committee met Saturday to discuss the issue. “The property committee will continue to study the issue and has set no timetable for a decision to be made,” Meighen said.

The college, located in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, stands to gain $1 million upfront for signing the leases, in addition to royalty payments, which vary from 15 to 18 percent, officials have said.

Westminster isn’t the only college in the Marcellus shale region that is exploring the idea of leasing land for drilling.

Pennsylvania’s Act 147, also called the Indigenous Mineral Resources Development Act, allows the state’s system of higher education to lease land to extract coal, natural gas, oil, limestone and coal-bed methane. The bill was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett on Oct. 8.

The other state-run universities in Pennsylvania that can now lease their land are Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester.

This is a deal that could be lucrative for the schools. Act 147 requires that 50 percent of fees and royalties from the leases go back to the school; 35 percent will be distributed to other state-related universities, and the remaining 15 percent will go toward offsetting the cost of tuition at the state-run schools.

State Rep. Jim Christiana, R-15, Beaver, points to the economic gain of Act 147.

“I think it’s a way for much needed revenues to flow towards education, social services or transportation without having to raise taxes,” he said.

Christiana also said that it could raise “significant dollars we would hope they would use toward decreasing tuition for Pennsylvania kids.”

While this act would be economical for both schools and students, some worry about the environmental and health effects of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, on campus.

“I basically have questions, questions I think the school should be asking, questions I think parents should be asking,” said Lisa Graves-Marcucci of the Environmental Integrity Project. She also has a college-age son.

“The No. 1 question is, has the school interviewed people who have fracking on their property or in their community? Have they done their due diligence?” she said. “As a parent, when I send my child to a school, I want to know that decisions are being made that take health and well-being into consideration.”

Christiana acknowledges this issue, but said that fracking can be done safely.

“(Concerning) the process of drilling, it’s been proven that the norm is that it is a very environmentally safe process,” he said. “Have there been accidents? Yes, but that’s with any industry. I think we have to protect the environment, but if we do that, we should be encouraging to business and economic development.”

Shale Reporter, 7 November 2012