CANONSBURG, PA. — Thirty years ago, Jason Capps was a young man with ambition, but when he looked around this town near Pittsburgh, where he grew up, all he saw were opportunities slipping away. The coal mines where his father worked were dying; the glass, steel and manufacturing industries were on their last legs.
In 1987, when Capps graduated from high school, the unemployment rate was at a staggering 12 percent.
“My ability to carve out a future here was limited at best, impossible at worst,” he said. “So I left.”
Capps, 51, became a chef and traveled the country honing his skills. But then an unexpected rebirth happened here in Western Pennsylvania with the discovery of the Marcellus Shale, an ancient rock bed that offers an abundant source of natural gas.
Eventually, Capps moved back to his hometown and, in 2006, he founded Bella Sera — a successful event space resembling a grand Tuscan villa — which he still owns and operates.
“There was this amazing trickle effect, this positive economic evolution that I saw happening in a place where nothing ever happened,” he said.
For decades, geologists knew Devonian black shale existed in this region, but few thought it would be a major source of natural gas, mainly because the supply was thought to be too low.
That all changed in 2003 when energy company Range Resources experimented with horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing — a new technique commonly called “fracking” — which flushes large volumes of high-pressure water, sand and chemicals into the ground, forcing trapped gas to escape into a well.
In 2004, the first commercially viable well was drilled, attracting multiple oil and gas producers and suppliers to the region. The town’s Southpointe industrial park has since grown to include a breathtaking campus of homes, a championship golf course designed by Arthur Hills, and an executive business park where multiple Fortune 500 companies are based.
“In 2008 is when it really started to turn up,” said Jeff Kotula, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. “Over 20,000 people work here every day, thousands also live, golf or stay at the hotels.”
Like the men and women who built coal and steel and glass in this region 100 years ago, Kotula and Capps have prospered because of the natural resources under their feet. But unlike their forebears, they now worry that the politics of environmental justice will kill their region’s newfound prosperity.
Climate justice activists say fracking contributes to climate change. Two of the most vocal anti-fracking members of Congress, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders, introduced companion bills last year to end the practice nationwide. Ocasio-Cortez said in her release, “The science is clear: fracking is a leading contributor to our climate emergency. It is destroying our land. It is destroying our water and it is wreaking havoc on our communities’ health.”
In January, newly sworn-in President Joe Biden signed several executive orders that banned or halted fracking on federal lands. With the stroke of a pen, people from Louisiana to South Dakota to New Mexico saw their livelihoods canceled. While he has so far held his powder on the prohibition of fracking on non-federal lands (and the practice still goes on in Canonsburg), Biden’s statements that the climate crisis will be at the center of his policy-making has locals and business owners worried.
Rodney Wilson, who is vice president of business development at energy company CNX in Canonsburg, dismisses critics’ claims on fracking and argues that it has actually helped the environment, because…