Pennsylvania Fracking: Welcome to Frackville

A landscape architect takes a closer look at the Pennsylvania fracking boom to prepare for fracking near his home in New Mexico.

| March/April 2014

Five and a half years ago, I learned we might lose our home to oil drilling. Strangers could suddenly be in control of our land, scraping, drilling, fracturing bedrock, leaving the wastes—with no legal responsibility to us. What would happen to the local economy, to services everyone takes for granted, in the Wild West atmosphere of an oil or gas “play,” when boomtown populations double overnight? So began my forced education about petroleum engineering.

The high desert is where my wife and I have always wanted to live, a landscape of immense silent spaces, mesas, and astonishing clouds. We live just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and call our home The Underground. It’s passive solar, with a straw-bale addition that I built singlehandedly.

In October 2007, I attended a meeting held by a “wildcat” oil company—exploratory drillers who sell production rights to others. They had leased drilling rights beneath much of the Galisteo Basin, our watershed. All the leasing deals had been done in secret before the drillers announced their intentions at this meeting.

I assumed we must have some legal protection, but that was wishful thinking. They would simply cut our fence and bulldoze a several-acre “pad.” We’d get 30 days’ warning and nonbinding negotiations about where, not whether, to drill. The pad could be in the backyard; we’d get no compensation. We wouldn’t lose our home, technically. It would merely become unlivable and unsalable. Our home is our retirement plan, a situation many neighbors share.

The wildcatter’s CEO gave a slick presentation—he showed wellheads like hydrants amid thriving grasslands; not a tank, condenser, pipeline, or wastewater pond in sight. “Nice Photoshop,” someone yelled. Homeowners who made impassioned pleas were condescendingly reminded about civility and time limits.

Every landscape professional (like me) has been to dozens of these dog and pony show meetings. This time, it was personal.