This photo-essay examines how the leasing of private and public land for shale gas extraction (“fracking”) in Pennsylvania has initiated a “tragedy of the commons” in historically communal locales, degrading common-pool resources and weakening long-standing norms of sovereignty and reciprocity.
On a picture-perfect September morning in 2013 in the northern Pennsylvania hamlet of Trout Run, Cindy Bower noticed something unusual as she peered out the sunroom windows at the placid pond located a stone’s throw from her rustic home: the tranquility was ruptured by the staccato tapping of one of her stained-glass sun catchers against the window. “They have never done this before in the fourteen years that we have had a house here,” she reported. “I had to take one of them down, and I may have to remove more because the vibration is unsettling.” Something is “definitely shaking the earth,” Bower concluded, “and it is new.”1 Though she could only speculate on the source (“Is it mini earthquakes?”), Bower was certain it had something to do with the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of nearby gas wells. Within a quarter mile of her house, along a winding “tar and chip” (unpaved) road called Sugar Camp, earth-movers leveled the side of a mountain to build a well pad, two massive drilling rigs manned by dozens of workers operated around the clock, pipeline rights-of-way scarred a forested tract of state game land, tractor trailer caravans routinely snarled traffic and caused the road to buckle, and a fifty-foot plume of fire shot out of a flare stack for days. While the Bowers put a covenant on their property to enshrine its Arcadian character, and though the gas company placed mesh netting along the perimeter of part of their yard in an attempt to prevent the trucks exiting their neighbor’s well pad from driving on it, Bower was powerless to stop the “noise, the light pollution, and the smells” of industry from trespassing on her property. She felt “under siege” in a place they built to be their refuge and talked about “escaping” to upstate New York.
Whether or not the rattling of her sun catcher against the windowpane really was caused by shale gas extraction, it is important to understand Bower’s underlying state of anxiety and uncertainty because it hints at how the process colloquially known as “fracking” can disrupt and transform everyday life in the rural communities situated on the front lines of America’s “energy revolution” (Gold 2014).2 Though fracking may help reduce carbon emissions and provide a shot in the arm for small towns struggling to find a place in the postindustrial economy, it imposes an industrial infrastructure onto agrarian and woodland communities (McGraw 2012). Many residents are ambivalent about whether the net balance of the changes wrought is positive or negative. But our investigations in more than two dozen municipalities across three northern Pennsylvania counties (Lycoming, Bradford, and Susquehanna) make clear that choices by individual landowners to lease and develop their property produce “spillover effects” that harm their neighbors’ quality of life and degrade communally shared resources like forests and roads.
Many of the predominantly rural communities where fracking takes place have weathered prior boom-and-bust cycles and socioecological disruptions from other extractive industries (e.g., coal and timber). Moreover, this essay is hardly the first to document the environmental and community impacts of fracking (see, e.g., Perry 2012;,Wilber 2012). Yet there is something distinct about how fracking reshapes the rhythms of community life and people’s relationship to the land that has received scant attention. To access the gas, energy firms must lease the mineral rights, sometimes for thousands of dollars per acre, from landowners, who are also entitled to royalties if gas is extracted from under their land. Companies routinely operate right in lessors’ backyards. In this way, fracking is more intimate, more dependent on personal approval (rather than, say, local governments), and potentially offers more direct financial benefits than many other environmentally risky land uses (e.g., a landfill or coal mining).3 In regions like Appalachian Pennsylvania where it is common for land to be passed down through generations and where property rights are sacrosanct (Perry 2012), when “landmen” fanned out across back roads seeking to convince landowners to lease their properties, many potential lessors took for granted that the decision to allow shale gas development on their premises (or not) was strictly a personal matter. There were no public town hall debates or referenda about whether “the community” should allow drilling, and while every natural gas installation requires a bureaucratic assessment of its particular impact on the environment and public safety, it is in the aggregate that personal land-use decisions can produce consequences that have an impact on almost everyone—even if they do not host natural gas infrastructure on their property or receive lease bonuses or royalties.
While the jury is still out on whether shale gas extraction can mitigate climate change or revive rust belt America, it seems that fracking has initiated a “tragedy of the commons” in historically communal locales: lessors keep all the money earned for themselves, while any negative impacts (e.g., traffic or water contamination) are shared, which incentivizes everyone to lease. Although Garrett Hardin (1968) claimed that private property counteracts atavism and resource depletion by internalizing costs, in this case exercising one’s right to do what one will on one’s own land undermined the potential of others to enjoy that same right and eroded common-pool resources. This social dynamic also weakened long-standing community norms of sovereignty and reciprocity and left some residents with a profound sense of alienation from their property, neighbors, and place. Because state and federal governments have leased public land for drilling, fracking entails our collective alienation from large portions of the literal commons as well.
The Gas Boom, Climate Change, and the Fracking Controversy
Shale gas has quickly become one of America’s most important, and lucrative, energy sources. While it has long been known that vast reserves of natural gas (and oil) lay locked in layers of shale a mile or more underground, most of it remained inaccessible until this century, when the process of hydraulic fracturing—also known as fracking—was combined with horizontal drilling. It is hard to overstate the profound economic, sociopolitical, and environmental impacts wrought by this technological innovation.
President Barack Obama announced in his 2012 State of the Union speech that the United States has enough natural gas to supply domestic energy needs for one hundred years and support more than six hundred thousand jobs by the end of this decade. In just ten years, the United States has gone from anxious handwringing over peak oil to preparing for becoming an oil and gas exporter (Dernbach and May 2015). In just twenty more years, the dream of energy independence could finally become a reality (Anderson 2014). Moreover, fracking is generally credited with helping the US economy rebound from the “Great Recession,” lowering fuel prices at the pump, and reducing millions of consumers’ electricity and heating bills (Gold 2014; however, a glut of oil and gas has depressed prices so much that the industry and the locales dependent on it are now experiencing a serious economic downturn, including over seventy-five thousand layoffs in the past year [Helman 2015]).
The president and many others (including, controversially, the Environmental Defense Fund) also frame fracking as a tool in the fight against climate change since natural gas combustion emits about half as many pounds of carbon dioxide (CO2) per million Btu of energy as coal does (Energy Information Administration 2014). Cheap and abundant supplies of natural gas are incentivizing energy companies to switch from coal-to gas-fired power plants and have emboldened the White House to enact the stricter air emissions standards that are slowly but steadily shuttering coal plants. Indeed, between 2007—just before the shale gas boom began—and 2012, the United States experienced a 12 percent reduction in CO2 emissions (Gold 2014: 265); studies estimate that “between 35% and 50% of the difference between peak and present power sector emissions may be due to shale gas price effects” (Broderick and Anderson 2012: 2).
The ostensible environmental benefits of natural gas become murkier, however, if the calculus is expanded beyond an accounting of domestic CO2 emissions. Global coal consumption continues to grow, and the meteoric rise of fracking in the United States was accompanied by a sizable increase in coal exports, suggesting that the shale gas boom may be offshoring some coal combustion rather than displacing all of it (Broderick and Anderson 2012). Furthermore, because methane (the primary component of natural gas) is a greenhouse gas whose potency is more than twenty times that of CO2 over a hundred-year period, even a relatively small rate of methane leakage (i.e., 3 percent) from the production and distribution of shale gas could “offset or even reverse the entire apparent greenhouse gas benefit of fuel switching from coal to natural gas” (Dernbach and May 2015: 12). Some experts say that leakage rates are currently above that threshold (Brandt et al. 2014).
Of course, the most well-known environmental controversy surrounding fracking pertains to its potential to contaminate people’s drinking water (see Darrah et al. 2014;,Vengosh et al. 2014). Because of the 2010 documentary Gasland, which played a central role in shaping the public discourse surrounding fracking and in fomenting antifracking mobilization (Vasi et al. 2015), when people think about the risks of fracking they likely envision flaming faucets (fig. 1). Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment (EPA 2015) of the impact of shale gas extraction on water resources “did not find evidence” of “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water,” it does conclude that “in certain cases” drinking water has been contaminated by methane migration “via the production [gas] well” and by surface spills of hydraulic fracturing fluid and “produced water” (wastewater). It also notes that the discharge of treated wastewater “has increased contaminant concentrations in receiving surface waters” (ibid.).4
Individual Choices, Collective Consequences, and the Tragedy of the Commons
It is difficult to know how many cases of well water contamination from shale gas extraction exist because in most cases where oil and gas companies offer a settlement to landowners affected (in exchange for being indemnified), they require them to sign a nondisclosure agreement (Phillips 2012). Our own research in northern Pennsylvania has chronicled over a dozen families’ cases in which high levels of methane found in their water wells either were determined by the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to be caused by the drilling of a nearby gas well or resulted in a cash settlement.
Considering that more than 15 million Americans in eleven states live within one mile of a fracked well and that there are almost eight thousand active gas wells in Pennsylvania alone (Hill 2014), water well contamination appears to be a relatively rare event. However, when it does occur it completely upends lives and reveals how personal land-use decisions can create environmental impacts that extend beyond the lessor’s fence posts and infringe on neighbors’ property rights.
Most lessors understood that there were some risks when they signed. However, small landowners often reported that one reason they felt secure leasing was because they knew their property was not large enough for energy companies to install a gas well or other infrastructure on it—at most, a horizontal lateral would be drilled a mile or more below the surface. But what they seemed unable to anticipate, let alone control, was that gas wells on neighbors’ properties that were thousands of feet away could visit harm upon their water supply. The situation of Cassie Spencer, formerly of Paradise Road in Wyalusing, is a case in point.5 After two gas wells were drilled over a half mile away, she reported that her and her two neighbors’ water wells became infused with explosive concentrations of methane. Her tap water fizzed like soda. Chesapeake, the gas company that operated the two gas wells—which the DEP cited for multiple violations6—provided Spencer’s family with bottled water and placed a vent over their water well but denied responsibility. Once the Spencers and their neighbors sued Chesapeake, the water deliveries ceased. Spencer reported bathing herself and her five-year-old daughter with the door open because, with no bathroom windows, she was afraid the house could blow up, and a methane monitor had to be installed in the basement to warn if the buildup of gas in their home reached explosive levels. Moreover, because they felt unsafe using the methane-laced water for any household purpose (fig. 2), a huge “water buffalo” storage container had to be installed right next to their doorway (fig. 3). The estimated value of their house plummeted from $150,000 to $29,000, and the place that was once their sanctuary became a disaster area that they sought asylum from. Chesapeake eventually paid damages to the Spencers and their neighbors and bought their properties ($1.6 million was paid out in total), but the Spencers moved out with heavy hearts because the home they had left behind was where they had hoped to reside their “whole lives.”
It was a similar situation for four families living on Green Valley Road outside Hughesville. Although no development took place on their small plots of land, their spigots bubbled with methane after a gas well in their neighbor’s yard up the hill was drilled (the DEP concluded that defective cement casing of the gas well had caused the contamination).7 Forced to purchase bottled water and eat off of paper plates, these families bore the collateral damage of their neighbor’s faulty gas well. Ironically, the water well of the family whose property hosted the gas well was unaffected. It is important to note that, as with the Spencers, even if the four families had refused to lease their land, their water still would have been affected. Indeed, part of their justification for leasing was that they would shoulder some of the burden of others’ decisions to lease even if they did not, so they may as well get some economic benefit. It is precisely this logic that propels the tragedy of the commons. Even Bower, who placed a conservation easement on her land and claimed that she was “dead against” leasing and “didn’t need the money,” eventually signed a restricted (“nonsurface disturbance”) lease, explaining that she could not stop the drilling in her area and so should at least get some recompense for her troubles.
Although water contamination cases dominate the headlines, other less catastrophic but far more pervasive spillover effects dominated most residents’ everyday concerns. Chief among them was traffic. It takes over one thousand truckloads just to deliver the water needed to frack one well, and a single well pad can host as many as eighteen to twenty-four gas wells (McKenzie et al. 2012). Thus when water was being withdrawn from streams and rivers or when a well was being fracked, dozens of big rigs clogged residential streets and idled all day (or night) in close proximity to farmers’ fields, houses, and schools (fig. 4). Roads were routinely closed for hours or days to facilitate the safe passage of trucks to and from shale gas operations; sometimes they were closed indefinitely. More traffic jams and detours ensued when the trucks left as work crews scrambled to apply a new layer of asphalt to roads not equipped to handle the volume and weight of the trucks. Though during permit hearings gas companies commonly provided an estimate of the amount of truck trips that residents could expect as part of the development of a particular well pad, there was no mechanism in place to monitor or regulate the aggregate amount of traffic created by fracking operations. With multiple operators each running their own truck caravans to service individual wells, the public’s ability to access and enjoy roads—perhaps one of the most unappreciated common-pool resources when traffic is flowing smoothly—was diminished.8
While choked roads and detours palpably disrupted the habits of rural living, they sometimes also conspired with other more insidious spillover effects to produce psychosomatic disruptions such as anxiety, loss of agency, and a deep-seated sense of estrangement from one’s surroundings (cf. Perry 2012). For instance, what Bower said she found most “unnerving” was being deprived of dark skies and quiet (fig. 5). A drilling rig from a neighboring property, lit up like a Christmas tree, towered several stories above her red barn. After the gas well was fracked, flames from the flare stack created a din so intense that she had to close all of her windows and sleep with earplugs. The entire valley around her was flooded with so much light that the stars disappeared. “I miss the dark,” Bower lamented. “Will it ever look like night again?”
Over the past several years, fracking had made Bower’s sleepy hamlet of Trout Run—and dozens of other nearby rural settlements—feel more like a construction site or an industrial park. The contrasts could be jarring: just around the bend from pastures, unspoiled forests, and a lake popular with anglers, diesel fumes mingled with the mist coming off the mountains, a security guard shack and a portable toilet marked the entrance to a driveway, big rigs squeezed past each other on hairpin turns, a field served as a makeshift parking lot and storage facility, apple trees were coated with so much dust kicked up from the truck traffic along an unpaved road that the fruit was brown, cranes hoisted steel piping over tree stands, and a humble farmhouse sat a stone’s throw (literally) from a massive above-ground water impoundment pond and three well pads that alternately hosted a hulking drilling rig, a flare stack belching fire and roaring like a jet engine, and trailer homes for the dozens of workers who temporarily lived on-site (fig. 6).
The effect was particularly surreal at night. The drilling rigs were so large and so brightly illuminated that some said it looked like Cape Canaveral, and the flare stacks produced an atmospheric orange and gold halo slightly reminiscent of the aurora borealis (fig. 7). “I mean, if it were not a pristine environment being ruined,” Bower remarked of the scene, “you could say it is beautiful in its own eerie way.”
Like the traffic, the smells, noise, and light pollution from fracking do not stop at the property lines of those who hold or profit from gas leases. Everyone experiences a diminished capacity to access peace and quiet, unbroken vistas, dark skies, unhurried country roads, and the sounds of nature. As Hardin (1968: 1248) noted, our regulation of the pernicious effects of the tragedy of commons “in matters of pleasure” such as sight-and soundscapes is negligible. Some residents viewed the degradation of these previously taken-for-granted rural “goods” as a price worth paying for progress, but for others the loss was so disconcerting that their surrounds became alien to them and their attachment to place withered. So, while material spillover effects such as water contamination sometimes led to the physical displacement of residents from their homes, the despoiling of less tangible common-pool resources could prompt a psychological displacement. Bower found herself in a constant state of unease (“It’s quiet now, but who knows how long it will last?”) and sometimes unable to sleep because of worry. She also began spending more time at her upstate New York cottage and was considering abandoning her cherished home even though her property had not been tangibly affected in any way. Adron and Mary Delarosa (formerly) of Springville decided to pack up and leave their organic farm because they could not abide a planned compressor station next door in addition to the four gas wells already present within a mile of their homestead. For them, fracking did not just degrade their quality of life; the spillover effects brought about such global changes to their experience of place and community that it introduced a different way of life—one that they wanted no part of.
Fracking as a Way of Life
In writing about Appalachian communities decades ago, Kai Erikson (1976: 86) argued that residents live in an “uneasy suspension” between the “contrary leanings” of self-centeredness and group-centeredness. On the one hand, Appalachians have a fierce respect for individual liberty and are apt to distrust the government and any other forms of authority that try to impose limitations upon them. On the other hand, their feelings of attachment and obligation to kin and community can be so strong that they do not develop a “satisfactory self-image as a single individual” (ibid.: 84). Whether or not a distinct Appalachian culture persists in places like rural Pennsylvania, one certainly sees evidence of the “contrary leanings” of self-interest and communalism (which today we are apt to pair under the label “libertarianism”): government distrust is rampant, individual sovereignty is seen as a God-given right, and people often say they just want “to be left alone”; yet residents routinely preach self-sacrifice for the collective good and anchor their lives in the church and other voluntary associations.
The advent of fracking has forced the inherent tension between these self-and group-oriented proclivities to bubble to the surface in rural Pennsylvania. The tradition in many of these locales is to “live and let live” and resolve any disputes that arise through “informal norms of neighborliness” rather than through appeals to legal entitlements (Ellickson 1991: viii). However, the spillover effects of individuals’ choice to lease their land (the “live” in “live and let live”) can affect their neighbors’ and communities’ quality of life to such a degree that it contravenes the folkway of letting others live. As a result, both communalism and individual autonomy / property rights can be infringed by personal land-use decisions.
The stakes of fracking—financial, environmental, or otherwise—can be so high that neighbors and kin now routinely filter everyday interactions through legal-rational frameworks. For example, next-door neighbors who either never knew or never cared about the location of the boundary between their respective properties began researching deeds at the courthouse to ensure that no one else wound up with a dime of their rightful lease bonus. In one case, a couple who lived in a simple mountainside ranch house near Salladasburg had given a nearby hunting camp permission to construct a gravel access road through their property because, as they reported, it was the neighborly thing to do. The couple made the permission permanent through an easement just to ensure that, should they ever move, the new occupants could not deny access to the hunting camp. But the couple reconsidered when the camp leased its property for drilling and hundreds of big rigs and earthmovers began roaring up and down the driveway a mere dozen feet from their home. Their appeals to the hunting camp to disallow the trucks to use the access road on the grounds that it damaged their property and was against the spirit of the easement fell on deaf ears—camp members maintained that it was their legal right to use the driveway any way they saw fit.9 Meanwhile, the couple had a friend who had inherited, along with her nine siblings, her parents’ farm outside Hughesville, and she incorporated the property as a limited liability company after leasing it and set up monthly meetings in which someone took minutes and a lawyer was sometimes present to ensure that decision making and profits were fairly distributed among the ten of them.
Certainly, there were landowners who reaped a substantial windfall from leasing their property, and the presence of a new industry in rural towns suffering from decades of population decline and “brain drain” has fortified some declining businesses and opened up some new job prospects.10 But by overlaying an industrial infrastructure based on individual lease agreements onto a rural setting, fracking is fundamentally altering neighbor and kin relationships, even in communities like the ones reported on here that were not sharply divided between supporters and opponents of fracking (cf. Wilber 2012: 165–204): one’s right to do what one will with one’s property increasingly infringes on others’ ability to enjoy their own property or common-pool resources, and norms of neighborliness give way to legal doctrine. In some instances, residents tried—but largely failed—to make fracking compatible with customary ways of life. For example, it was common for landowners to collectively bargain as a single unit with gas companies so that all might be enriched together. Although this did ensure that stakeholders received commensurate leasing bonuses, only a fraction of lessors in any given unit were selected to host the natural gas infrastructure that generates continuous royalties; while their neighbors absorbed the spillover effects of that infrastructure, they did not share in the proceeds. Interestingly, some residents vexed by these disparities directed their animus mostly toward their neighbors rather than at gas companies. Perhaps since fracking is premised on voluntary leasing, these residents blamed unequal outcomes not on systemic factors but on their peers’ actions.
Ironically, residents experienced insults to their sovereignty not only from others’ leases but also from their own leases. George Hagemeyer of Trout Run, a retired custodian, hosted six gas wells on his beloved seventy-seven-acre property—mostly a grass field that he mowed religiously—which he inherited from his father. He reported at the outset that he was “thrilled” about having leased; however, over time he experienced a string of unforeseen indignities that challenged his control over his own backyard. First, the gas company placed a security guard shack and a portable toilet, along with nine warning signs, at the entrance of his unadorned gravel driveway. Then big rigs veered onto his grass. After fracking was completed, the gas company installed a security camera on the well pad and said he would be arrested if he went on it (“Arrested on my own property? I dare them!”). And it began using the pad as a parking lot. Hagemeyer said he learned about the gas company’s plan to install a large radio tower in his yard from his sister, who happened to be at the township supervisors’ meeting where the permit was approved, and he found out by reading a public notice in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette that the gas company had applied for a permit to withdraw up to 3 million gallons of water per day from his property.11 But the clincher for him was when a guard reportedly stepped in front of his car with a stop sign one day and said he could not proceed to his house because they were moving heavy equipment. “This land is mine,” Hagemeyer seethed, “and just because they’ve got a lease doesn’t mean they can do anything they want.”
But the truth was that Hagemeyer’s lease—which had been “flipped” several times—allowed the company holding it to do most of those things. Even as Hagemeyer bought an SUV and started renovating his kitchen with the proceeds, he lamented: “I wish I had never leased. What would my daddy say if he saw the way they use his land?” Even if hyperbolic (on other occasions Hagemeyer expressed more enthusiasm for leasing), the essence of Hagemeyer’s lament was that he had become alienated from his property; he was no longer king of his humble fiefdom. What he and other lessors seemingly failed to realize was the extent to which the “guests” they invited onto their premises have the run of the place—in effect, lessors became tenants on their own property.
This Land Is Our Land
Some recreationists reported a similar loss of liberty and feeling of alienation from land that once felt like their own upon returning to their favorite hiking trails and swimming holes after shale gas extraction had commenced in Pennsylvania’s state forests and game lands. Since 2008, the governor’s office has leased 138,866 acres of this “truly priceless public asset” (DCNR 2015) for shale gas development, bringing in $413 million in revenue. In all, approximately 700,000 acres of state forest are “available” for natural gas development—though the state has little say in and draws no rents from 290,000 of those acres because they are governed by private leases where the commonwealth does not own the subsurface rights.12 The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR 2015), which manages the state’s 2.2 million acres of forests, has approved 232 well pads (each capable of hosting up to twenty-four wells) and 1,020 shale gas wells since 2008.
Many portions of public land now managed by the DCNR actually have a long history of resource extraction. Edwin Drake drilled the first oil well near Titusville in 1859, around the time that the Williamsport area was known as the “lumber capital of the world.” Moreover, subterranean “orphan wells” and abandoned mine shafts are evidence of the state’s legacy of gas and coal mining. Yet most mining operations were shuttered decades ago because they were small-scale and inefficient, and the lumber industry collapsed before the turn of the twentieth century. Since then, millions of acres of second-growth woodlands have swallowed up almost all traces of this extractive history and have been turned into protected public commons that collectively “represent one of the largest expanses of wildland in the eastern United States” (ibid.).
While the DCNR maintains that it is committed to the “environmentally sound utilization of forest resources,” it is hard to visit state forests under development like Tiadaghton and not see how shale gas extraction is at odds with the DCNR’s efforts to retain their “wild character and … biological diversity” (ibid.). Tiadaghton is one of eight state parks designated as the Pennsylvania Wilds (2015), which are promoted as “home of the most spectacular, untouched and undisturbed wild lands east of the Mississippi.” However, with over 51,000 of the forest’s 146,539 acres leased for drilling, it is impossible to drive, walk, hunt, camp, or fish in the area without encountering industry.
As Jeffrey Prowant, the Tiadaghton district forester, eased his government-issued SUV onto a forest access road one spring morning in 2013, the bustle of the highway instantly gave way to a thick canopy of trees and a babbling brook. But in short order a caravan of water trucks with flashing warning lights forced Prowant to pull over to the side of the recently widened gravel road because they were kicking up so much dust. Helicopters buzzed low overhead, delivering equipment to mountaintop gas workers, and portable toilets and mounds of gravel occasionally appeared amid the foliage. Upon reaching a bend in the road where a 125-foot-wide grassy pipeline right-of-way coming down the mountainside intersected with a four-acre gravel well pad and a twelve-acre water impoundment pond surrounded by wire fencing, Prowant pulled over and remarked: “Prior to this, there was no—this was all forest. It was just unbroken forest.” Pointing to a gravel road clogged with trucks hauling water and sand, he recalled: “There was no road. There was no pipeline” (fig. 8). After the security guard nodded at him and lifted the gate that controlled access to the gravel road, Prowant inched up the mountain. Pointing to a large well pad with some big rigs parked on it, he complained: “They don’t have any other place to put ’em. But we’re not a parking lot. We’re trying to reduce the size of the pad, rehabilitate it, to some extent.” He continued: “My feeling is, if they had to come back in ten years and do something, and they have a rehabilitated site, we got ten years of value for wildlife or some other [ecological] aspect.” Yet he had seen no rehabilitation.
Between 2008 and 2012, shale gas extraction in Tiadaghton resulted in over 12 miles of new road construction and 44 miles of road modification (i.e., widening); 52 miles (or 144 acres) of gas pipeline right-of-ways (which equals .23 miles of pipeline for every square mile of forest); and 318 acres cleared for fifty-one well pads, three compressor stations, and twelve water impoundments (DCNR 2014). This equals the loss of over 586 acres of “core forest” (forested areas surrounded by more forest)—a reduction of as much as 10 percent within the leased portion of the Tiadaghton (fig. 9). This degree of forest fragmentation worried Prowant, and worries ecologists, because it created over 1,800 acres of “edge forests” that can attract invasive species, degrade the ecosystem services provided by core forests, increase riparian erosion and stream sedimentation, and drive out endangered plants and animals that only thrive in core forest (ibid.).13
Few would disagree that the “wild character” of the Tiadaghton “has been impacted” (ibid.) by shale gas extraction. Hikers of the Mid-State Trail, which traverses the entire length of Pennsylvania, now encounter well pads and must look out for gas trucks as they cross wide access roads. Mountaintop vistas of the meandering Pine Valley Creek are peppered with drilling rigs and the scars of pipeline clearances and well pads; the sounds of the birds and the rustling of the leaves are routinely drowned out by the clamoring of fracking operations; pine scent mingles with the pungent odor of diesel; and so on. But fracking operations take away more than the sensory experience of the wilderness. In some cases, they impede Pennsylvanians’ ability to access their forests. In Tiadaghton, gas drilling necessitated the long-term closure of two public-access roads, including one that led to a popular vista. On a shorter-term basis, seventeen roads totaling over fifty-seven miles were closed to facilitate shale gas development (ibid.). While Prowant was adamant that “unless there’s active drilling or some kind of active construction” gas companies could not impede public access even on well pads themselves, gas companies routinely policed people who encroached on their operations. Prowant was himself stopped as he stood in the woods next to a well pad while Colin Jerolmack took pictures. A security guard shouted: “Excuse me! This is XTO property! You must leave, and you cannot take pictures!” When Prowant replied that it was public property and that she could not stop anyone from walking in the woods or taking pictures, she demanded identification. It was only upon realizing that Prowant was the district forester that the guard sheepishly desisted, and she reported that her boss told her to write down the license plate number of any car that drove past and to disallow passengers from getting out of their cars.
Portions of the Tiadaghton have in effect become privatized, and an entire security apparatus has emerged to regulate access to land that is legally part of the commons and is a place where people have historically gone to escape the hassles of civilization and the scrutiny of others. Hunters, anglers, picnickers, campers, cyclists, and snowmobilers—anyone who visits “their” forest for recreation—can expect to find public-access roads inexplicably (and sometimes illegally) closed, to be recorded by surveillance cameras in places that are so remote they lack cell phone reception, to have to show identification and explain their presence to guards who determine whether or not they are allowed to proceed, to encounter fenced-off areas and signs that warn them (sometimes incorrectly) that they are trespassing, and to be chased off of areas (again, illegally) adjacent to gas installations. Indeed, Jerolmack experienced all of the above in the course of his ethnographic research.
With over 34 million acres of federal public land currently leased by oil and gas companies (Bureau of Land Management 2014), the industrialization and de facto privatization of large swaths of the Tiadaghton is a forewarning. If replicated nationally, it could result in significant environmental degradation and enclosure of portions of America’s most ecologically significant—and majestic—commons (fig. 10). In this way, even those of us not residing amid fracking operations may absorb the spillover effects from the government’s decision to lease and develop (ostensibly) public land. As well, the tragedy of the commons engendered by private oil and gas leasing in rural communities works directly against the kind of collectivist politics needed to prevent our planet from lapsing into abrupt and irreversible climate change. This should be kept in mind when considering the role of fracking in mitigating global warming and moving us toward sustainability. For shale gas extraction to be “sustainable,” it must do more than burn “cleaner” than coal: it should foster the resilience of common-pool resources and the communities that host it.
Text by Colin Jerolmack; photographs by Nina Berman. Direct correspondence to Colin Jerolmack, 295 Lafayette St., Floor 4, New York, NY 10012; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Jerolmack thanks Eric Klinenberg and an anonymous reviewer at Public Culture, participants in Northwestern University’s Culture Workshop, Nina Berman, Ralph Kisberg, Jooyoung Lee, Alexandra Murphy, and Iddo Tavory for comments.
All names in this article are real and used with permission. The stories and quotations presented herein were gathered from in-person interviews and direct observations carried out between 2011 and 2013.
Some industry proponents reject the word fracking; others apply it only to the specific process of injecting high volumes of pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into a drilled well. We use fracking as it is used in everyday conversation: to refer to the entire process of preparing a well pad, drilling and cementing a gas well, fracking, and removing the briny “flowback” and “produced water” (wastewater).
New York is the only state where municipal bans on fracking have been determined to be legal, though the 2014 state supreme court decision became irrelevant after Governor Andrew Cuomo instituted a statewide ban.
There are also contentious debates over potential health impacts from fracking. Although no peer-review study has established a causal link between fracking and disease, “all phases of hydrocarbon gas production involve complex mixtures of chemical[s],” many with “significant toxicity” (Bamberger and Oswald 2012: 52), and Cuomo cited “significant health risks” as the reason for his ban on fracking in New York (Hill 2014). Perhaps counterintuitively, the proposed culprit in most reports of health impacts is air pollution, resulting from gas wells, compressor stations (which serve as nodes for area wells that pressurize the gas), and diesel engines venting volatile organic compounds—including known toxins such as benzene and formaldehyde—into the atmosphere next to residences, communal gathering places, and parks (Hill 2014).
For more on this case, see Berman 2011.
Violations include “failure to properly control or dispose of industrial or residual waste to prevent pollution of the waters of the Commonwealth” and “site conditions [that] present a potential for pollution of the waters” (StateImpact 2015b).
Copies of DEP reports are available from Jerolmack. To view the violations associated with this well, see StateImpact 2015a.
To view a video of truck traffic, see “Heavy Fraffic” 2011.
The couple signed a nondisclosure agreement with the gas company upon being compensated for damages to their chimney and the foundation of their house.
Whether or not fracking is an economic “game changer” for communities that host it is debatable. Although Pennsylvania’s gas “boom” peaked between 2011 and 2012, the state’s unemployment rate remained 7.9 percent (almost identical to the national average), even though the unemployment rate fell in forty-three states in that time (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2015).
“Notice is hereby given that on July 8, 2015, Anadarko E&P Onshore LLC has filed a Notice of Intent … with the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) seeking approval … for the consumptive use of water for drilling and development of natural gas well(s) on the George E. Hagemeyer Pad” (Williamsport Sun-Gazette 2015).
Mineral rights trump surface rights in Pennsylvania; thus the surface owner must allow subsurface access if someone else holds the mineral rights. This is referred to as “severed rights” or “split estate.”
Relatedly, the gas industry advocated the controversial Endangered Species Coordination Act, which would limit the ability of Pennsylvania state agencies to designate endangered species.