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 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.”