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

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.