Fracking With Pennsylvania: The Marcellus Shale Debate

The Marcellus Shale controversy may feel worlds away, but it could change everything from our economy to the water we drink. Our man travels through Gasland and brings back tales of boom towns, big business, angry nuns, Hollywood stars and the fight that’s going to transform our state forever

It took nearly seven hours to get everyone to the microphone for a two-minute testimony. And in the end, distilled to their essence, the arguments about gas drilling would have a Dickensian duality: Drilling is the best thing that could ever happen here. Drilling is the worst thing that could ever happen here.

YOU’VE PROBABLY NEVER heard of Honesdale, but if you bathe, cook or take a drink from your faucet in Philadelphia, what happens there, in central Wayne County, could affect your life. I know the town pretty well, since for the past 15 years I’ve owned a house about 12 miles away in a tiny Delaware River hamlet called Narrowsburg. I live here part-time to escape from the city.

My property is located in New York state, where a different political dynamic held sway, prompting the state legislature to block gas drilling for now, but when I look out my kitchen window, the trees I see are in Pennsylvania. A few of my smug New York neighbors have dubbed my home state “Pennsyltucky,” a dig at what they see as the hickish gullibility with which state officials opened the portals to gas companies. I thought they were being unfair until I saw an interview on YouTube with Camille “Bud” George, the Pennsylvania state representative and Democratic chair of the legislature’s environmental resources and energy committee. In it, George says repeatedly, “I’m not agin’ the gas,” like a character out of To Kill a Mockingbird. And he’s a skeptic.

When drilling started around Pittsburgh a few years ago and began moving across the state, I had never heard of the Marcellus Shale formation (one landowner told me she kept confusing it with the Italian dish—veal marsala), let alone the drilling process called “high-volume slick water hydraulic fracturing.” But soon these terms would become part of my everyday life and vocabulary. Signs for and against drilling popped up on my neighbors’ properties on both sides of the river. Suddenly, the local weekly paper seemed to write about nothing else.

Last summer, at the weekly farmers’ market, a friend corralled me to sign onto a mailing list for an environmental organization. As far as I could tell, I had nothing to gain from gas exploration—my property was too small for any drilling company to care about leasing it—but I didn’t have strong feelings against it. Then, as I started to receive e-mail after e-mail from the group and follow links to the sites of a burgeoning number of drilling opponents, there seemed to be lots to lose. Not only could my country retreat be turned into an industrial zone, the thickly forested hilltops pockmarked with drill pads operating 24 hours a day, the road past my house packed with truckloads of drilling material and wastewater; the more ominous specter was that a pristine system of streams that feeds the Delaware could be decimated by the demands of hydrofracking and destroyed by its results.

The oddest bit of evidence I found was an article written by a Philadelphia nun named Nora Nash, whose order, the Sisters of St. Francis, had some oil company investments. (Who knew?) Sister Nora was in charge of making sure those investments were socially responsible, and in the autumn of 2010, she went to western Pennsylvania to observe hydrofracking. “We met with individuals and groups whose experience with hydraulic fracturing over the past few years was both disheartening and clearly a violation of human and other rights,” she later wrote. “These individuals and groups begged us to inform others that their air and water were contaminated, any hope for healthy living jeopardized, and that any legacy left for their children and grandchildren might be devastating.”

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