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

Two Oscar nominees appearing on the same day. Probably a first for Honesdale High School.

They’re here in the 5,000-resident seat of Wayne County at Pennsylvania’s far northeast corner, along with hundreds of other people who have braved a frost-breathing, ice-crunching morning and waited in line for hours for a chance to speak their minds about what may be the most game-changing phenomenon in generations—the spread of natural gas drilling through the state.

The school auditorium has been given over to a public hearing being conducted by an agency whose importance and prominence right now to folks around Honesdale stands in inverse proportion to its previous obscurity—the Delaware River Basin Commission. The DRBC was long a bureaucratic backwater based in Trenton, created by a joint compact among Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and the federal government. Then it exercised its primary authority—water use anywhere in the Delaware River watershed, which supplies the drinking water for Philadelphia—and temporarily shut the door here in Wayne County on the advancing armies of natural gas drillers who had been sweeping across the state, pursuing what Ed Rendell would describe as a “modern-day gold rush.”

The rush began about four years ago, when gas companies started tapping into a deep and massive pocket of fossil fuel previously thought to be inaccessible. Called the Marcellus Shale, it runs in a diagonal swath southwest to northeast about a mile under more than half of Pennsylvania. Getting the gas requires an advanced drilling technique that bores down a mile and then turns the drill bit horizontally and runs through the shale deposit for another mile or more. Drillers then finish the process with a high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals—a process called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” for short—to release the gas in the shale. Using this technique, the industry promised to produce a gusher of natural gas that would make Pennsylvania sort of a new Saudi Arabia.

Now, some people are looking forward to becoming rich as sheikhs. Others see the environmental prospects of fracking and are shocked. Like Josh Fox, an intense, bespectacled 38-year-old playwright and director who is just a few days from traveling to the wild glam-fest at Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre to find if he’ll win the Oscar for Best Documentary for his film called Gasland. For that film, Fox started from his family’s second home near Honesdale and traveled around the country, looking at places where fracking was already happening. He came away appalled by the process. The movie is filled with images of polluted air and water, sickened animals and people, and once-bucolic country spoiled by tanker-truck-driven industrialization. Now, as Fox steps up to a microphone in front of the DRBC’s chairwoman, he is jeered a bit. He has been jeered a lot by the gas industry.

“You will be signing the death warrant for the Delaware River,” Fox says. “The natural gas industry is out of control.… This industry is sloppy, bullying, aggressive and dangerous.… Their entire business is based on a lie: the lie that it is okay to live in an area where the massive industrial development of hydraulic fracturing is taking place.”


His two-minute allotted time quickly ticks away after Fox warns of the destruction of the Delaware. But he has backup. Waiting behind him for his turn to speak is Mark Ruffalo, the genial and effortlessly handsome actor who’s also going to Hollywood later in the week, as an Oscar nominee for his supporting role in The Kids Are All Right. Ruffalo introduces himself as a resident of the nearby Delaware River town of Callicoon.

“If there are no problems with gas drilling,” he asks, “how come there are so many problems with gas drilling?”

And so goes another volley in what might be the largest and most important zero-sum game in Pennsylvania’s history.

“A TRILLION DOLLARS, plus or minus billions.”

That got people’s attention. It was January 2008 when a sober-seeming and somewhat nerdy Penn State geosciences professor named Terry Engelder released the results of some number-crunching he’d been doing to determine the amount and value of the natural gas that might be available in the 400-million-year-old rock formation that ran like a fairway under Pennsylvania.

Even in Washington, a trillion dollars is real money. But in a state that had been losing manufacturing jobs for decades, where farmers were aging into poverty, here was the overnight addition of a trillion dollars in resources—down there, just waiting to be tapped—stored under parts of Pennsylvania where economic conditions aboveground were normally desertlike. This was huge. So big that it had the unprecedented effect of making Ed Rendell, with his talk of a gold rush, seem like a master of understatement.

The Marcellus Shale play, as the gas people like to call it, was going to transform us into Texas, with hills and a lot more greenery. Millionaires would be made—hundreds of them—simply by signing contracts for the right to go get the gas a mile underneath their homes. A generation of workers—tens of thousands of them—would have good middle-class jobs laying pipe, building roads, driving trucks. At a time when states trip over one another to lure in a 1,000-worker factory, the arrival of the gas industry could be like 100 factories. This could be the biggest thing to hit these parts since coal mining.

And that’s exactly why this is so important: This could be like coal mining. Senator Bob Casey Jr. grew up in Scranton, a town that symbolizes the boom-and-bust cycle of King Coal, and a case study in how the big royal banquet was attended by a relative few, but the bill for the cleanup was shared by all. “Our state went through most of the 19th century and half of the 20th century not getting it right, in this case with coal,” Casey said recently. With natural gas, he warned, “We have to get it right.”

That’s why hundreds of people—farmers, loggers, small-town politicians, students, lobbyists, and even a couple Oscar nominees—would show up at Honesdale High School on a freezing weekday: some to argue about what getting it right means, some to argue that the risks are so great that there’s no right way, that everyone from Honesdale to Pittsburgh to Philadelphia might end up paying a price nobody can afford.

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.”

At the heart of the dispute about drilling is whether hydrofracking will actually pollute the aquifers. According to ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization that’s done scores of reports on gas drilling in the past few years, there have been thousands of claims of well and groundwater contamination in areas where hydrofracking is taking place. But the gas industry consistently denies responsibility, and proving the exact culprit of such water pollution is complicated and expensive.

On one set of crucial facts—what, exactly, is in the chemical mix that drillers add to the water and sand during the fracking process—the back-and-forth between the industry and environmental activists has gotten nearly absurd. Because drilling companies obtained an exemption from the Clean Water Act (conveniently, it is much noted, while Dick Cheney, the former CEO of fracking innovator Halliburton Corporation, was in the White House directing energy policy), they’re not required to reveal the chemicals that go down the wells. Critics found evidence of such toxins as benzene and toluene, known carcinogens. After much prodding, a gas industry group finally released a partial list of fracking chemicals that included more benign substances like ethylene glycol and hydroxyethyl cellulose, the latter of which, they noted, is also used to make gummy bears.

It was this dichotomy that intrigued me. Each side seemed to only believe its own facts—much like the global-warming debate. I wanted to understand how two sides could look at the same thing and see such different pictures. So, not long after the DRBC hearing, I drove back out to Honesdale to talk to a few neighbors.

"WHAT PEOPLE IN PHILADELPHIA don’t understand,” says Marian Schweighofer, a pert and easygoing 55-year-old who lives on a 700-acre farm in Damascus Township, “is that people up here have always exploited their natural resources.

“When Philadelphia said, ‘We need ship masts,’ we cut down trees and floated them down the Delaware. The blue stone that they used to build West Point came from here. Nowadays we ship hay all over. So when natural gas came our way, it was like God gave the people here a gift. Because the economy up here is so sucky.”

Natural gas came into her picture about five years ago, when, through her association with the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, Schweighofer began hearing stories from farmers farther west. “We looked to Susquehanna and Bradford counties,” she said, “and networked with the farm people out there. And found out what the problems were.”

At the DRBC hearing the week before, one of the commissioners of Bradford County, Doug McLinko, testified that there had been 550 wells drilled in his county—the most in any Pennsylvania county—and, he maintained, “we have seen no problems.”

“It’s been wonderful in Bradford County,” McLinko said.

I had talked to some people in Towanda, the county seat of Bradford, and they spoke of a business boom that was in full force. Their economy was ducky. Hotels were booked solid; restaurants were full. One happy restaurant owner reported that her brother-in-law’s heavy-equipment company had tripled its sales in the past few years, topping $10 million annually. “He buys cranes,” she reported, “like I buy shoes.”

But not long after this, a gas rig near Towanda blew out during a fracking operation and spilled thousands of gallons of fracking fluid (likely saturated with salt, radioactive material and that secret, potentially toxic brew of chemicals) into Towanda Creek, which runs into the Susquehanna River. The spill prompted another Bradford commissioner to write a letter to Governor Corbett, saying: “The economic benefit of this development is unquestionable. However, it is also unquestionable that when left unattended, the negatives outweigh the positives quickly and heavily.”

Now, sipping cranberry juice in the kitchen of her well-lived-in house, Schweighofer tells me, “I don’t know anybody in Wayne County who’s saying, ‘Just give me the money. I don’t care if you destroy my land and water.’ We just want to proceed with some kind of prudent production.”

Schweighofer describes herself as “simple country people.” In fact, she was born in King of Prussia and lived in Holland as a youth, but then met Edward “Bud” Schweighofer in college, married, and moved to the Wayne County farm that had been in his family for five generations. As the gas-industry landmen moved her way with leasing contracts, she helped found the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which began with five farmers meeting around a kitchen table and grew to represent 1,800 families holding a total of 100,000 acres. Working with big-city lawyers, including two from Ballard Spahr’s Philly office, the alliance signed with oil giant Hess Corporation, not only bargaining for a signing bonus of $3,000 an acre, but stipulating provisions such as how the gas company could develop land (“You don’t want them going through your best field,” Schweighofer maintains) and, most importantly, how they were required to monitor water quality.

She insists that her group of landowners did extensive due diligence before welcoming what they consider a highly reputable gas company into this part of Wayne County. Starting with that bred-in-the-bone belief that natural resources are there to be exploited, Schweighofer and her neighbors have taken a leap of faith: They believe gas drilling can be done safely.

Yet the longer I talk to her, the more it seems that her words show, if not distrust, at least skepticism toward the industry that promised to change her life and the lives of so many of her neighbors. For instance, there’s the stipulation in her lease that an independent lab conduct water tests during the drilling process, so, she says, “the gas companies can’t switch the samples.” At another point, she talks about how drillers had started to recycle some of the millions of gallons of water that went down a well for fracking. “The companies are saying 90 percent reuse. It’s probably closer to 60 percent,” she says matter-of-factly. But if there was this much skepticism, why would you allow drilling on your land in the first place? Her answer to that question is so obvious that it needn’t be mentioned.

“I just don’t want you to portray us as a bunch of greedy, money-hungry people,” Schweighofer tells me. “The greedy ones didn’t stand and wait. We gave up a certain amount of bonus money to get protections in place.” Under the more complicated lease her alliance signed, landowners have been paid three bonus payments of $500 per acre. In Schweighofer’s case, that came to about a million dollars. There were three more payments scheduled, but now that the DRBC has placed a moratorium on drilling in the Delaware watershed, Hess can suspend bonus payouts. The months have added up as the Wayne County landowners wait for the DRBC to write its own watershed-specific drilling regulations. Meanwhile, the forces against drilling have become more organized, more vocal and more influential. Over here on the far east side of Pennsylvania, the gold rush has been hobbled.

“We’re in suspended animation,” Schweighofer says. “And time is money. That is a taking of our private property rights without compensation. The other side is just saying ‘Kill the Drill,’ delay it at any expense. We’re just too far apart. You can’t bridge it.”

THE NEXT DAY, a few miles down the road and across a bridge, in Narrowsburg, New York, I met Barbara Arrindell for lunch at a café overlooking an eddy near the deepest spot in the Delaware River. From this restaurant’s back deck, I’ve watched eagles swooping to pluck fish from the clear water.

Arrindell, who grew up in Long Island, is a compact 65-year-old with a science degree from Columbia who has lived in Damascus Township, about 10 miles from the Schweighofer farm, for nearly a decade, working as a glass artist. Early in 2008, as she became aware that gas drilling was coming her way, she finished up her art projects, knowing that her life was about to change. Then she helped found Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, one of the most active and outspoken of the anti-drilling groups, and it now takes all her time.

After we ordered, I asked her about the problem of navigating through what seem to be separate realities presented by pro- and anti-drilling camps. “The PR machine fed by the extractive industry is so huge,” she said firmly. “And they’re spending so much money. I think they have three lobbyists for every legislator in Congress. They’re putting out lies, and they want to stamp out all these little sprouts of truth that are coming up. It’s not that we have a different set of facts. It’s that we actually have facts.”

For the next two hours, Arrindell heaped them on me, speaking concisely of fears ranging from air contamination from compressor stations to water pollution caused by a range of factors, such as accidental spills and underground migration of fracking fluid. She outlined a study that showed a steep decline in gas production by fracked wells, which seemingly contradicts gas-industry claims that the Marcellus Shale bonanza will last a generation. In the days after this lunch, my e-mail inbox would fill with additional information, studies, references and contact information for experts recommended by Arrindell.

“I’m going to send you an article that first appeared in the New York Times about a mental state called Heart’s Disease,” she promised. “What it amounts to is all the stress and anxiety and hurt that happens when you live in a place and it completely changes into an industrial zone. It’s an invasion, like an army invasion.”

A few days before this, I had talked to a sociologist named Abby Kinchy, who teaches at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York and who grew up near Towanda. She has returned to study the effects of the gas boom. “It’s a little too early here to see what major patterns are emerging,” Kinchy told me. “But I definitely see some signs of social disruption. Talking to people, the overall feeling in everyday life is anxiety.”

Arrindell had her own cost-benefit analysis of the boom: “The way it’s being presented now, the Pennsylvania government in particular is saying, This is going to make a lot of money, so it’s worth it. Worth it to who?”

Politicians come to mind. Drilling opponents like Arrindell frequently mention the large political contributions gas companies gave Tom Corbett—nearly $1 million before his election. Former governor Tom Ridge, now an influencer for hire, is on the gas-industry payroll, reportedly to the tune of $1 million, to extol the virtues of gas drilling. “It’s the most I’ve felt like a governor,” Ridge said in one speech, “since I was governor.”

While former governor Rendell invoked the image of a gold rush, he also advocated that the drillers give some gold back to the state in the form of a severance tax, something nearly every drilling state has administered. His replacement has publicly said that he wants to turn Pennsylvania into Texas, and even though Texas taxes gas extraction, Corbett has made his opposition to such a tax quite clear (though lately he seems open to imposing local “impact fees” on gas companies). He’s also appointed gas-industry insiders to important positions in his administration—including a new commission formed to advise the administration on Marcellus Shale development.

“The City of Philadelphia has to scream at the state of Pennsylvania,” Arrindell said. “If the Delaware River gets contaminated, where is the city going to get its water?

“Anybody who says, ‘Oh, the problems are way up there; it’s not going to ever get to Philadelphia’—he’s got his head in a bag.”

AMONG THE MANY signs that activists brought with them to Philadelphia City Hall on a warm, bright evening just before spring was one that played with the new technical term gas drilling has added to our vocabulary: “No frackin’ way!” Another sign, drawn with heavy black marker on cardboard, was less inflammatory, but more ominous: “Everyone is downstream.”

This forum, organized by a group called Clean Water Action and sanctioned by Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, is billed as a chance for people who were unable to drive to Honesdale on a weekday (unlike certain Academy Award nominees) to state their worries to the Delaware River Basin Commission about opening up the Delaware watershed to drilling.

It may not be screaming, exactly, but City Council, led by Reynolds Brown and Curtis Jones, has done the political equivalent of loud throat-clearing in a roomful of people sniggering at a private joke. While state officials have controlled the spread of the gas gold rush with a technique that one scientist describes as “Ready, fire, aim,” Philadelphia’s legislators, not normally renowned for their collective prudence, have advocated a drilling moratorium for further study of the possible environmental effects of hydrofracking before allowing drilling anywhere near the Delaware. Only problem is, they have virtually no power in the process.

As the clock ticked toward the DRBC decision, things were getting weird and sometimes nasty in my part of Gasland. The time-out imposed by the commission had tamped down the drilling wildfire but inflamed passions. Marian Schweighofer reported that she’d received some not-so-veiled death threats. Josh Fox didn’t win the Oscar for Gasland, and the filmmaker received a stinging review from an unlikely critic: Pennsylvania’s top oil and gas geologist in the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, who compared the movie to Nazi propaganda and said Fox would have made Joseph Goebbels proud. Fox, whose father’s family includes a number of Holocaust survivors, called for Governor Corbett to fire the geologist. Around the same time, state police in Wayne County started investigating an arson on the Fox property near Honesdale.

In my town, the friendly young guy who runs a coffee shop on Main Street lost customers after a false rumor spread that he’d signed a gas company lease. On the other side of town, a homeowner was ordered to take down a sign he’d tacked to his garage. With a flag-draped background, he’d indulged in the tempting wordplay of this boom: “Let’s Get Fracking,” the sign read, “Just Pass the Gas.” It wasn’t the message—the sign was simply too big, said the chairman of the town zoning board, who happens to be an opponent of drilling. In response, the guy who owns several hundred acres of land across the road from me put an identical sign on his house. We don’t discuss it.

One day in early spring, I drove up the road that traces the Delaware River to the town of Callicoon and met Mark Ruffalo for lunch. Ostensibly, we were getting together to discuss a movie he’d directed, but we couldn’t help talking about fracking.

“I really didn’t want to get involved with something that would be so controversial in my community,” he said. “But I just had to do it.” He’s now spent three years studying the issue, and the actor pretty much summed up the conclusion I’d reached in my own travels around Gasland. “You know what,” Ruffalo said, “I might be wrong, and one day I’ll come out and apologize. Gas drilling might be the best thing since sliced bread, like everyone’s saying—like all the gas companies say. But nothing that I’ve seen tells me that’s true.”