By Rick Hiduk
Jonathan Fritz, Pennsylvania representative of the state’s 111th district struggles daily with the fact that half of his constituents are enjoying a robust economy and reaping the benefits, while the other half have limited employment options and earning potential as the state and federal government prevents natural gas development there.
It’s also the tale of two watersheds. Most of Susquehanna County, the eastern half of which is part of the 111th District, is in the Susquehanna River Basin. Wayne County, the upper two-thirds of which Fritz represents, is in the Delaware River Basin. The commissioners of both are made up of federal and state officials. The Susquehanna River Basin Commission allows drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Bradford, Susquehanna and Wyoming counties, but the Delaware River Basin Commission has yet to allow natural gas production in Wayne County.
“We feel that it is very much an injustice to the people who live there,” Fritz said of his eastern constituents. “They can look over to Susquehanna County and see the opportunity and the jobs – the economic liberty that exists – and at the same time be deprived of it.”
Fritz describes himself as a country boy from Wayne County, proud to have grown up on a dirt road as the son of a life-long water well driller. After two terms as mayor of Honesdale and two terms as a Wayne County Commissioner, he successfully ran for the state seat in 2016. He draws unique parallels between his family’s business and the natural gas industry.
“We would drill into the earth to bring to the surface an essential-to-life natural resource,” Fritz offers. “I really look at natural gas through that same prism. It is an essential-to-life resource that lies underfoot. It can be extracted safely.”
In Susquehanna County, Fritz sees improved roads, an expanded health network, and people finding family-sustainable employment. Act 13 funds (aka – impact fees) have helped municipalities purchase new equipment and build new structures. “That increases the quality of service to the resident,” he stated. “It also levels the tax liability for the people who live there.”
At the county level, there have been no new taxes since Act 13 was established, and funds allowed for a much-needed renovation at the courthouse that effectively tied together three old buildings that now operate seamlessly.
The infrastructure improvements, he noted, result from a combination of the use of impact fees by municipalities and the energy companies themselves. “With the industry comes the realization that we need to enhance our roads. That has been a very serious endeavor by the industry,” said Fritz. “When they come in and repair a road, they often leave it in much better condition than it was prior to their starting to work in the area. That’s a benefit to everybody that travels over that road. Our roads are better now than they have ever been.”
Fritz related that he is often asked by Wayne County residents about the negative impacts of the industry. He tires easily, he explained, of exploitation and misrepresentation of facts put forth by anti-gas activists. They talk about heavy traffic, contamination, and disruption of tourism. While acknowledging the changes brought by natural gas development, he assures them, “the benefits of responsible industrial development far outweigh any negatives.”
He has come to see the increase in traffic as indicative of a healthy economy. “That’s a sound job for that person driving that truck that embodies the opportunity that comes along with it. That’s how I temper the reality that I’m going a little bit slower on this road because of that truck.”
To those with environmental concerns, he maintains “Pennsylvania has some of the tightest and strictest regulations in the country. Negative impacts become easier to identify and mitigate over time.”
His take on tourism and the impression of visitors to Susquehanna County is particularly unique. Noting that spending by visitors has increased steadily throughout the growth of the industry, Fritz suggests, “You want to go where you are warmly received. When you have a region that is doing well economically, the people are happier. Whether that’s the waitress that you encounter at the diner, the checkout clerk at the supermarket, or the person pumping gas, you find that they are happy and smiling, and you have a pleasant exchange with that individual.”
To me, those people are all ambassadors for your region. As a tourist, you’re able to tap into some of that positivity, that would compel you to return,” Fritz continues. “Where the natural gas industry is, people are content.”
Fritz wants his Wayne County neighbors to also enjoy lower unemployment, higher wages, greater job diversity, and the recognizable renaissance of their Susquehanna County counterparts and vows to continue the work with the DRBC to ease the restrictions on natural gas development.
“How they can vote and act in one way for one basin and then act and vote in an entirely different way in the other basin…speaks to hypocrisy. It’s very much unfair,” he stated. “We’re going to continue to fight. We feel that there is no reason and logic. The fact that the industry has been very positive overall is the justification to move forward with responsible natural gas development in Wayne County.”