The Drumbeat Outside Our Castle Walls
I watched an interesting program on public television on Sunday evening about the role that the British played in honing our concept of “home,” one that was uniquely English at a time when much of the rest of the world was still communal if not tribal.
Amanda Vickery hosted “At Home With the Georgians,” which explored the era of the early 1800s from which came the phrase “a man’s home is his castle.” Although the notion that doors and walls somehow denoted prestige was devised by the wealthy and affluent, the idea quickly trickled down to a burgeoning middle class. To live outside those walls or to be housed dormitory style as many poor and destitute people of the time were was to, figuratively, be stripped of one’s dignity.
Americans had fought the British twice in the previous 50 years, but we moved more quickly than most of Europe did to adopt the concept that maintaining one’s privacy behind closed doors was more or less a God-given right. That sense of entitlement even changed the codes of criminal law in ways that we still observe and support to this day. For example, theft was redefined as the act of stealing something from a person with no intention of returning it to its rightful owner. Burglary, on the other hand, dealt with the act of breaching the sanctity of one’s home, whether or not anything was taken, and was punishable by hanging.
As it was one of America’s original colonies and benefitted from the planning and foresight of some of the emerging nation’s greatest thinkers, it seems that Pennsylvania adopted and further developed a criminal code that was more strongly based on ownership than it was morality, hence the phrase “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” I don’t think that I would be so far off base to suggest that those of us who were born and raised along the east coast have an innate sense that, once we legally claim ownership of a structure or property, everyone else should keep their hands off it.
That might be why the concept of eminent domain insults us to the soul. We want to believe that we can do what we want to our own properties, so long as we are not harming anyone or conducting illegal activities, and that nobody has the right to take that privilege away from us. The reason that many people were quick to lease their mineral rights to the gas companies could be because few of us are obsessed with land ownership that we feel that what we can see on a two-dimensional map literally goes to the core of the Earth. With our limited understanding of the stages that would follow gas exploration, drilling, and extraction, however, it has come as a surprise to most people that the process of running gathering lines and pipelines to get the gas to market might usurp our surface rights, even if we have such an agreement in writing.
The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission’s Pentex Pipeline hearing held in Wyalusing a few Fridays ago provided just an inkling of the fights to come. The fear is that granting eminent domain to any company like Pentex will open a floodgate, and we will lose control. As quickly as homeowners step up to protect what they own, the companies associated with the gas and pipeline companies are forging lawsuits at the state and federal level to prove that they will do everything they can to push their product to market in a manner that works best for them.
Chief Gathering LLC, for example, has moved its lawsuit against three Luzerne County families from the federal courts back to the state courts to fight for its right to run a pipeline from Susquehanna and Wyoming counties through Goodleigh Estates in the Dallas area to connect with the existing Transco interstate transmission pipeline in Dallas Township. The company maintains that it will lose $2.2 to $3 million per month if construction is not started as scheduled on Nov. 11, plus an additional $9 million if it cannot get its gas to market. When weighed against the potential losses suggested by the company, a few hundred thousand dollars in legal fees to get what they want is a mere drop in the bucket.
The truth is that these companies have to get their gas out of here, and pipelines are the only way to do it. A Chesapeake Energy corporate development public affairs specialist assured me that none of the natural gas that has been tapped will leave here by tanker trucks or rail cars. The five-step process of installing pipelines as he describes includes land acquisition, design and engineering, permit acquisition, construction, and reclamation, the latter meaning that grass will be grown where trees have been cut down.
It would be easy to say that perhaps all of us should be willing to give up a little ground for the common good, but that’s not the way this is going to work. Just as baby waste trapped by a diaper follows the path of least resistance, so too will the pipelines. Some people will not be affected much by the process, but others will likely feel the full effects of this next phase of natural gas development and, like baby waste, it’s really going to stink for some people.