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Commissioners visit New Mexico for natural gas conference

BY JAMES LOEWENSTEIN (Staff Writer)
Published: January 21, 2012

TOWANDA – While Bradford County has experienced extensive gas drilling for a few years, what will it be like after the drilling has gone on for decades?

The three Bradford County commissioners and other local officials had a chance to get a sense of what could happen when they traveled last week to participate in a two-day conference in Lea County, N.M.

Lea County’s economy had been based for decades on natural gas production, although in the last decade its economy has diversified to include other forms of energy, such as nuclear, solar, and wind, the Bradford County commissioners said.

The conference, which was titled “Shale Gas & Conventional Gas: From Pennsylvania to New Mexico,” discussed the issues surrounding the development of shale gas using Lea County, N.M., and Bradford County, Pa., as case studies, according to the Economic Development Corporation of Lea County, which co-sponsored the conference.

Lea County’s population is about the same size as Bradford County’s, but its economy is dependent solely on energy production, Bradford County Commissioner Daryl Miller said.

The Bradford County commissioners discussed the trip at the commissioners’ meeting on Thursday, and both commissioners Doug McLinko and Mark Smith said it was worthwhile to travel to New Mexico.

McLinko said the trip reinforced for him the belief that Bradford County needs to do more to be ready to take advantage of opportunities to bring long-term jobs to the county, such as the planned Moxie Energy gas-fired electric power plant in Asylum Township. The Moxie Energy plant will bring a significant number of long-term jobs to the county, he said.

“They (Lea County officials) are very aggressive with their (economic) development (efforts)” to keep and attract long-term jobs, he said, adding that Lea County needed to broaden the base of their economy so that they were not tied to the ups and downs of the natural gas industry.

Among the measures that Lea County has taken are to purchase and lease thousands of acres of land, and Lea County is bringing infrastructure to that land, such as municipal water and electrical service, in an effort to attract industry to locate on the property, McLinko said. By controlling those thousands of acres of land, Lea County can offer attractive terms to the businesses that consider moving there, said Bradford County Economic Development Manager Lauren Hotaling, who also attended the conference.

McLinko said he does not want Bradford County to buy or lease land to attract businesses. But he said that townships, boroughs, and private property owners in Bradford County need to take steps to make sure there is land available for businesses or industry to move to, and that that land is ready with the infrastructure they need, such as municipal water and sewer, as well as any zoning provisions.

“When you get an opportunity for development, you can’t lag behind, because we are in competition with other states,” he said.

However, Hotaling said one problem with attracting businesses and industry to Bradford County is that there is a limited area in the county that has the kind of infrastructure that many large businesses are looking for, such as municipal water and municipal sewer.

And in the locations where municipal water and sewer exists or will soon exist, such as Route 6 in Wysox Township, the land is expensive to buy, she said.

There is even a lack of natural gas distribution lines in Bradford County that could supply these large businesses, she said.

Just as is the case in Bradford County, hotels in Lea County are used by workers in the energy extraction industry, namely gas and oil drilling, Hotaling said.

But Lea County has secured a use for its hotels which will buffer them against the ups and downs in gas and oil drilling. Specifically, Lea County has become a training center for Homeland Security, she said. The training has resulted in the construction of three or four additional hotels in Lea County, she said.

Hotaling also said that New Mexico’s state budget is heavily dependant on revenue from the gas and oil industry.

The gas and oil industry provides over 26 percent of New Mexico’s state funds, she said.

New Mexico has a state severance tax on gas and oil, she said. New Mexico also gets a significant amount of revenue from lease bonuses and royalties on state-owned land, she said.

Among the local officials who traveled to the conference were state Rep. Tina Pickett, Progress Authority Executive Director Tony Ventello, and Mark Madden of Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Bradford County paid the airfare to the conference for the three Bradford County commissioners, according to Bradford County Fiscal Director Joan Sanderson.

The Progress Authority paid for lodging and meals for the three Bradford County commissioners while they were in New Mexico, Hotaling said.

James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: jloewenstein@thedailyreview.com.

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