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|William Penn Holding his Charter|
William Penn was the largest private landowner in America, maybe the whole world. He owned all of Pennsylvania, with the states of Delaware and New Jersey sort of thrown in. Although he and his descendants tried actively to sell off his real estate from 1684 to 1783, they still held an unsold three-fifths of it at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, which they were forced to sell to the state for about fifteen cents per acre. This bit of history partly explains both the strong feeling this is private, not communal, land despite the existence of 2.3 million acres of the state forest system, which is affirmed right alongside the rather inconsistent feeling that raw land is somehow inexhaustible. Early settlers regarded the center of the state as poor farmland, particularly when compared with soil found in Lancaster and Dauphin Counties, or anticipated by settlers going to Ohio and Southern Illinois. A complimentary description is that glaciers descended to about the middle of Pennsylvania, denuding the northern half of topsoil which was then dumped on the southern part as the glaciers receded. Even today, farmers tend to avoid the northern region if they can, reciting the ancient advice from their fathers that "Only a Mennonite can make a go of it, around there."
So, lumbering had a century-long flurry in Central Pennsylvania, exhausting the trees and moving on. But that only related to the top layer of soil; beneath it lay anthracite in the East, and bituminous coal in Western Pennsylvania, supporting the steel industries of the two ends of the state with exuberant railroad development. Even today worldwide, hauling coal is the chief money-maker for railroads. The resulting availability of rail transport promotes the location of heavy industry near coal regions; the 20th Century decline of coal demand ultimately hurried the decline of heavy industry in the state by impairing the railroads.
Beneath all this lie the aquifers, porous caverns of fresh water. And beneath that, largely unsuspected for two centuries, lie the sedimentary deposits of a huge inland sea, compressed into petroleum which evaporates into natural gas. All of this is held by huge deposits of semi-porous shale rock, now mostly 8000 feet deep, stretching from Canada to Texas and called the Marcellus shale formation. If it can be economically recovered, there is more natural gas than in Arabia, and there is a similar formation along the near side of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, stretching up to the Athabasca tar sands in Canada. There is another similar formation in France underneath Paris. No doubt, we will find the whole world has similar huge deposits for which the main problem has always been: how do you get it out?
There's another question, of course, of who owns it. Those who clearly do not own it maintain that everyone owns it. In the western world, most particularly in America, it is our firm belief that if you live on top of it, you own it. Since it is expensive to extract, quarrels like this are usually settled by purchasing mineral rights from the surface owner, who generally could not possibly extract it by himself. Those who assert they have a conflicting right to it because it belongs to everyone can expect belligerent resistance. At the present time when America faces a critical fifteen year period of dwindling oil supply, ultimately relieved by perfecting alternative energy sources, there is too little time to achieve consensus for any other governance theory. The problem which could possibly gain enough traction to interfere is the issue of potential damage to others which might result from the extraction of this subsurface treasure. Because of the apparent urgency of a decision to extract or go elsewhere to extract, the best we can hope for is some fairly rough justice.
Originally published: Friday, May 14, 2010; most-recently modified: Thursday, September 16, 2021
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