In Another County: One Week in America’s Natural Gas Mecca

On January 31, eleven Middlebury students—outfitted with cameras and field recorders—piled into a 15-passenger van and motored seven hours south to Bradford County, Pennsylvania, home to one of the most densely hydraulically fractured regions in the United States. Their week-long Middlebury Alternative Break (MAlt) Trip in Eastern Pennsylvania was structured as an opportunity to explore energy issues. It was a leap into the unfamiliar, an attempt to humanize the social, political, and environmental dimensions of natural gas extraction.

Two of the participants chronicled their experience.

The first thing we did when we rolled into Bradford County was scan the scenery for signs of hydraulic fracturing: the “frack” pads, the clear cuts of forest, the cesspools, the bulky rigs and power stations. Instead, we saw a community enduring what seemed to be the consequences of the natural gas industry’s “boom-bust” economy. We observed only vestiges of the gas companies: the occasional water truck, a frack pad, or pickup stained packed with pipeline, stained ink black. Landmen had already collected signatures from landowners’ to drill. Wells had been drilled, fracked, and re-fracked. For the lucky few, royalty checks, big or small, were streaming in. The traffic that accompanied the initial fracking boom had thinned. Local shops, hotels, and restaurants, once teeming with contractors, landscapers, and engineers, were emptied.

frack

One of the authors, Zane Anthony, standing at an abandoned fracking site in Pennsylvania

We wondered where everyone had gone. (To the next fracturing sites outside the Marcellus Shale border, we would learn—to North Dakota or Oklahoma where communities were being zoned and primed for drilling, fracking, and extraction.)

It seemed that everyone we encountered had a story. One resident we met was Carol French, a lifelong dairy farmer and Bradford County resident, who along with fellow dairy farmer Carolyn Knapp, founded Pennsylvania Landowner Group for Awareness and Solutions (PLGAS) in 2008. PLGAS provides a forum for community resistance to unjust business practices by the gas industries in the region.

Carol told us that she had never considered herself an activist type. Then, she leased her land to Chesapeake Oil Corporation. Drilling began on her property, and her water turned to gelatin. She and her livestock developed rashes all over their bodies. Her adult daughter became sick multiple times and ultimately moved out of town. Carol sells her milk to many corporations, but she no longer drinks it herself. She said her community was now fraught with environmental health risks as a result of the industry’s unregulated, unrestrained efforts to extract.

Later in the week, we visited the office of the Bradford County Planning Commission. They told us the fracking industry has funneled wealth into the area and enabled farmers to sustain the economic viability of their livelihoods. We asked them about Carol’s and Carolyn’s claims. They said water contamination as a result of hydrofracking was not a prevalent issue, insisting the industry is safe. PLGAS and the Planning Commission’s stances on natural gas issues were fundamentally divided. We were in a dual reality.

We also encountered middle ground. We met with a man at the county’s conservation agency who considered fracking one of the most effective farmland conservation efforts he had ever witnessed. In the county, many of the farmers are elderly, and a farmer’s retirement is his land. We were told that royalties from the industry have allowed many farmers to remain on their land into retirement. Without this option, the conservation agency’s representative told us, developers would have purchased the land, subdivided it, and built “McMansions.”He also noted that the industry has encouraged people to break their conservation easements with the agency to allow for more fracking and paid for the resulting fines. It is not yet understood how fracking has impacted the land and its resources, he said.

We also interviewed a couple who leased their 200 acres at the height of the boom and today earn substantial income from royalties. With this money, they installed a geothermal heating system on their property. Other families, they noted, leased early on for a fraction of the price of those who waited long enough for higher royalties, which has resulted in a substantial wealth gap previously unseen in the area.

On the last night of our trip, we worried that once we returned to  Middlebury our memories of this place would fade, that we would forget that our lives are so deeply rooted in energy consumption, consumption that affects communities like this one in complex and permanent ways. But this concern didn’t last long. We had traveled to a seemingly foreign  jurisdiction to see first-hand the environmental and societal impact of natural gas extraction; when we left, we were determined that our experience wouldn’t be left behind.

Zane Anthony ’16.5 is a biology major from Annapolis, Maryland. Sophie Vaughan ’17 is an environmental studies major from Oakland, California.

This is the first Dispatch in a three-part series chronically student-led Middlebury Alternative Break Trips.

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  1. Thank you. Fracking is punching into my home state of WV. The entire thing breaks my heart.

  2. I applaud Sophie and Anthony for researching and writing this piece. While fracking may be appropriate in some areas of the world until we can develop safe and affordable non-carbon based sources of energy, their story outlines the complexity and moral issues. What we do today affects all of us down the road. We are all connected!

    Steve Phelps

  3. Excellent, thoughtful article — nice job, Midd kids! Just like the rest of life, fracking is a very complicated subject. The appropriate balance is a policy that allows energy extraction so we don’t all have to retreat to some cold, dark cave unable even drive to a store, job, concert or friend’s cave — while ensuring an appropriate level of regulation so that the landowner (even those who receive nice royalty checks every month) doesn’t suffer an undue burden. In any case, panicking and trying to place a blanket ban on fracking, drilling, mining or whatever is not the way to go. Negotiation and compromise are.

    Suzanne

  4. To Sophie and Anthony, thank you for this successful and succinct attempt. I enjoyed reading your piece.

    You conveyed the diveristy of perspectives that exist on this rather divisive issue and did so through specific narratives that are quite accessible.

    You have also gained first hand insight into how powerful and productive commercial actors can rapidly transform the landscape of a community–physically, ecologicaly and financially. I hope you both find constructive outlets to apply these insights.

    To Middlebury College, I wish MAlt Trips were on offer when I was an undergraduate. A productive use of students mental and physical energies to be sure.

  5. A great book on fracking was just published this April 2014 called “The Boom” by senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal, Russell Gold. This work tracks the technology and industry of petroleum products and the fracking industry from the beginning to the present. It delves in detail about the social, environmental, monetary, industrial energy needs, climate issues, etc. of this industry and technology.It is a very complicated industry but there do seem to be some thoughful and promising conclusions. Most of the problems with this type of technology seem to have some resolutions with compromise and understanding. Well casing with poorly poured cementatious products and lack of monitoring and testing seem to be

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    the cause of a lot of the environmental issues associated with fracking. These types of issues seem to be resolvable with the newest technology and appropriate regulations. There should be hope in the future to use fracking in a manageable and controllable environment to produce needed natural gas while also protecting the social and natural environment.

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  6. This was a well-written, balanced look into the issues facing energy extraction. I look forward to more from the series.

    Thank You.

  7. Eleven students, seven days and this is all they could come up with? Fracking is a major issue with potentially serious long term environmental consequences. For these students “it was a leap into the unfamiliar”, actually more of a hop, skip and a plop, that doesn’t seem to have been much more than an expensive junket presumably paid for by their parents. Definitely a sugar free “malt”.

Comment Policy

We hope to create a lively discussion on MiddMag.com and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. MiddMag.com may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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