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

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.