December 8, 2023

The Fracturing of Pennsylvania

From some views, this diamond-shaped cut of land looks like the hardscrabble farmland it has been since the 18th century, when English and Scottish settlers successfully drove away the members of a Native American village called Annawanna, or “the path of the water.” Arrowheads still line the streambeds. Hickory trees march out along its high, dry ridges. Box elders ring the lower, wetter gullies. The air smells of sweet grass. Cows moo. Horses whinny.

From other vantages, it looks like an American natural-gas field, home to 10 gas wells, a compressor station — which feeds fresh gas into pipelines leading to homes hundreds of miles away — and what was, until late this summer, an open five-acre water-impoundment chemical pond. Trucks rev engines over fresh earth. Backhoes grind stubborn stones. Pipeline snakes beneath clear-cut hillsides.

The township sits atop the Marcellus Shale Deposit, one of the largest fields of natural gas in the world, a formation that stretches beneath 575 miles of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York. Shale gas, even its fiercest critics concede, presents an opportunity for the United States to be less dependent on foreign oil. According to Wood Mackenzie, an energy-consulting firm, the Marcellus formation will supply 6 percent of America’s gas this year, a figure expected to more than double by 2020.

About five years ago, leases began to appear in the mailboxes of residents of Amwell Township from Range Resources, a Texas-based oil company seeking to harvest gas through hydraulic fracturing. “Fracking,” as it is known, is a process of natural-gas drilling that involves pumping vast quantities of water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet into the earth to crack the deep shale deposits and free bubbles of gas from the ancient, porous rock. Harvesting this gas promises either to provide Americans with a clean domestic energy source or to despoil rural areas and poison our air and drinking water, depending on whom you ask.

On Nov. 21, the Delaware River Basin Commission, which involves four states — Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and Delaware — will vote on rules governing fracking in the river’s watershed, which supplies some 15 million people with drinking water. The states most affected will be New York and Pennsylvania, which sit on the Marcellus Shale, where the gas is closest to the surface.

This summer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York moved to lift the state’s yearlong moratorium on fracking against vocal opposition from environmentalists and many local residents. Following a series of hearings this month, New York will decide whether to allow fracking early next year. In the meantime, New Yorkers are looking to Pennsylvania, the first neighbor to welcome fracking, as a model.

There are more than 4,000 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania, with projections ranging from 2,500 new wells a year to a total of more than 100,000 over the next few decades; 458 of those wells are in Washington County and 60 are in Amwell Township, to which fracking has given an injection of new income and business; it has also spurred one of the first E.P.A. investigations into fracking’s effects on rivers, streams, drinking water and human health.

Just before Christmas in 2008, a handful of neighbors granted Range Resources the right to drill thousands of feet below their homes and up to two miles in any direction. Signing leases here is nothing new. For the past 200 years, one industry after another has extracted minerals from the land. In the 1800s, it was coal; in the 1900s it was glass, coke and steel and industrial mining. “Sooner or later, somebody wants to go around, under or through you,” one farmer and gun-shop proprietor told me. “You make your best deal and you talk to a lawyer. At least these companies pay something up front.”

What these companies paid was more than many people in Amwell Township, where the per capita income in the 2000 census was $18,285, were accustomed to seeing in their lifetimes, even if the windfall wasn’t the same for everyone. Next-door neighbors made, upon signing, between $1,500 and more than $500,000 for the same amount of land. Curiously enough, the huge gap in payments didn’t cause much trouble among neighbors, at least at first. Most, if they express a political viewpoint at all, are old-school libertarians who believe each man has the right to live by his will and abilities.

Eliza Griswold is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and is at work on a book about man-made America, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Editor: Sheila Glaser

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