Saturday, December 29, 2012

Two books on fracking: NY Times review

EXCERPT:  the industry’s biggest excitement has come in the East, where a boom has been underway for several years in the so-called Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia into upstate New York. This gas-trapping shale formation has been estimated to hold as much gas as the whole United States consumes in a century. (The estimates are highly contested; some analysts are insisting that new data show them to be considerably smaller, though still vast, and indeed at the end of January the federal government slashed its earlier predictions in half.)

The gas is also ideally situated along the route of many existing natural gas pipelines and near the heavy-consumption eastern megalopolis. If you’re an energy company, it’s about the best place on the planet to find a huge pool of gas—it’s like discovering an underground deposit of beer directly beneath Yankee Stadium. Because of the potential profits, the agents of various companies have fanned out across the back roads of the region in a remarkable land rush, seeking to lock up drilling rights on the hitherto not-very-valuable acreage of marginal dairy farms and cut-over woodlots.

The two books under review tell the story of that land rush. In fact, they manage to tell exactly the same story, with exactly the same set of characters—a few neighbors along a rural road in Dimock, Pennyslvania. Pennsylvania has been the very epicenter of this boom, less for geological than for political reasons: the powers that be in Harrisburg have been remarkably congenial hosts to the new fracking industry, rolling out the red carpet. (They’re so generous that, unlike Louisiana or Texas, they don’t even charge a severance tax on the gas that’s generated in the state. In fact, they’ve even offered up official state forests for use as drill sites.)

That means that some people have come into unexpected riches, including McGraw’s mother, who leased her land for a large sum—for some farmers looking for an easier retirement it’s been a blessing. But the money has also divided communities in painful ways, since those who don’t reap a bonanza suffer the side effects: the noise and squalor of an industrialized countryside, the danger of quiet roads now overrun with trucks. And even the fortunate run the risk that something will go wrong with the wells on their land.

For example, Victoria Switzer and Ken Ely, neighbors who leased their land to Cabot Oil and Gas in the early days of the boom, then turned into adversaries of the company that did the drilling. They had good reason: before long, drinking water from their wells had turned brown. A neighbor’s well exploded, apparently because of “methane migration” from the fracking operations. Cabot insisted it wasn’t at fault; for a while it bought bottled water for the neighborhood, but eventually it stopped doing even that. It was, in other words, a kind of horror show, the sort of tragedy that usually accompanies largely unregulated booms. (And this one has been largely unregulated—the Pittsburgh newspaper reported in January that the state doesn’t even know where many of the wells in the state have been drilled, because companies, which are supposed to report on their operations, often don’t bother.)