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.”