Pennsylvania Fracking: Welcome to Frackville

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A fracking pad and ponds in Western Pennsylvania.
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Natural gas production from U.S. Shales, 2000-2013
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Marcellus Shale rig and gas well operation in Scott Township/Lawrence County, Pennsylvania.

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.

For several months a stunned community tried to organize. I lay awake nights in panic.

Spring 2012: I settle into my seat as my flight takes off from Albuquerque for the East Coast. I’m going to see what several Pennsylvania landscape architects have described as a feeding frenzy. Those were their polite comments about the Marcellus Shale gas boom.

North of Pittsburgh, at the Zelienople airport, Steve White fuels up to fly me over the surrounding counties. A pilot in a black oil company helicopter waits impatiently for us to finish.

White’s real job is remodeling. He tracks drilling, he says, for his kids’ sake. He knows where fracking ponds are up against someone’s back door, where “restored” pads have slipped down hillsides, where temporary pipelines have leaked. Many projects go in without permits, he says.

The ground is pockmarked with pads and pits, the sky aflame with waste gas flaring from tall stacks, visible for miles. “I’ve been to public meetings where drillers say they don’t want to flare; they’d rather be more green,” White says. But new wells are still flared for the first few weeks, when gas may be contaminated. Lack of pipeline and storage capacity may also result in burn-offs. Below us, a flare towers directly over a high-school running track.

We fly over homes wedged between giant orange waste-water ponds. Dwarf conifers neatly surround one well pad in a futile attempt at landscape architecture. White knows a fellow, his home surrounded by wells, who hedged himself in to avoid seeing what had befallen his landscape. “That going to be the new trend?” he shouts, pointing.

“What worries me,” White says after landing, “is that drilling creates such a divide between winners and losers. If you own your rights and get wealthy leasing them, when the land gets unhealthy, you take the money and leave. If you didn’t own rights, or leased them cheap at the first offer, you’re stuck with the damage, with no money, no infrastructure, and no economy when it goes bust.” Who would even buy here, he wonders aloud, let alone fix up a house, not knowing when and where drilling will start next?

As I drive away from Zelienople, I’m thinking how Norway’s government invests North Sea Oil money in anticipation of the bust, something Pennsylvania isn’t doing. I try not to imagine the future facing Steve White’s kids.

Bridgeville, Pennsylvania: White’s friend, Bob Donnan, meets me in a white F-Series pickup. A big, amiable man, face neatly wreathed in a thick white beard, he’s run Donnan Landscape Services for 30 years, somehow finding time to create a 560-page website. Along with concise horticulture videos, he’s posted excellent analysis and photos of Marcellus Shale drilling.

As Pittsburgh’s southern margins fray into rural landscapes, Donnan tells me of friends and neighbors, struggling with dust, methane fumes, heavy trucks, and contaminated water. “This was like Shangri-la back in here,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

We pull up at three big boxy machines and some tanks—a gas compressor station. Donnan was here the night that Shale-Test, a nonprofit group that works on environmental justice issues, took infrared video of fumes vented from these tanks.

“We get down to my buddy’s house,” Donnan says, pointing to a home in the distance, “and one guy has a methane detector. About a third of a mile from the compressors, it goes off.” The Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection (DEP) did tests, but by federal law, individual compressors are considered “point sources.” As long as each unit doesn’t exceed its emissions limit, the cumulative multiple-unit emissions are legal. “So don’t light any matches up here,” Donnan says. He’s serious.

A year ago, Donnan and his neighbors helped rescue the Monongahela River from fracking flowback, which drillers were dumping into wastewater plants. Flowback is extremely salty; when mixed with chlorinated municipal water, it forms trihalomethanes, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Ill-treated effluent went into rivers, causing fish kills, one of which was 35 miles long. Public awareness, not Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) enforcement, ended the dumping.

Confronting groundwater contamination is harder. “You have to run an expensive battery of tests because you don’t know what chemicals might be there,” Donnan says, referring to the Halliburton loophole—the Congressional decision that Dick Cheney managed to influence, effectively dubbing the ingredients of fracking fluid “proprietary,” which exempts the fluids from the Clean Water Act and five other major federal laws. No one is allowed to know what has been put down a Pennsylvania well, not even firemen or ambulance drivers. The loophole is slick: Whatever is found, it can’t be proved to come from a formula that’s secret.

“Even doctors,” Donnan exclaims. “Doctors can get information to treat a patient, but they’re gagged. They can’t disclose it to help another patient or the general public.” Owners of contaminated water wells are frequently gagged, too. If a well is found to be contaminated, the driller settles, denying liability and giving contamination a standard spin. Exploding wells and flaming faucets, the industry asserts, are owing to surface gas that has always been there.

“Over there is Darrell Smitsky’s,” Donnan gestures. “People used to drive miles to get Smitsky’s well water, it was so darn good. But they had a Marcellus well that wouldn’t frack, near an abandoned old gas well, never been plugged.”

I’d been reading The End of Country, Seamus McGraw’s excellent memoir of drilling in his hometown, Dimock, Pennsylvania, the site of an exploding water well. The DEP’s official finding blamed gas from surface deposits, exactly as drillers had said. But a fracking rig had disturbed those deposits when it got stuck in gravel. DEP held those drillers responsible.

Here at Smitsky’s, after a bad frack, well water turned chocolate brown; five goats became paralyzed; fish in a decorative pond died after turning translucent; pond plants shriveled; and showering caused rashes. The same excuses were proffered. Surface gas, the old well, even jealousy were blamed: If the Smitsky’s lease paid as well as the neighbors’ had, they wouldn’t be complaining.

Donnan’s voice hints at controlled anger. “People say, it’s just anecdotal evidence. Well, it may be, but these are good honest people with no reason to lie.”

“You want to Stop in on my buddy Hoss?” Donnan suggests. Hoss Godwin, a nurseryman, had trouble with “cowboy” drillers early on but now receives gas royalties from 17 sites, plus pipeline easements.

“The gas,” Godwin says up front, “has kept our nursery expanding. Nationwide, there’s nurseries going out of business left and right. We’re doing lots of business with the gas companies, selling plants to go around compressor sites, as townships regulate more site restoration.”

Several gas pipelines cross his nursery fields, taking many acres out of production. Godwin, who is clearly a sharp negotiator, gleefully recounts recouping his lost revenue. “I was paid for the nursery stock, which we had the right to dig. It was still mine. We sold them a bunch of that stuff after they had basically paid for it.” The drillers passed the shrubs out for free in surrounding towns.

Drilling and pipeline rights are separate, and Godwin’s pipeline leases include cash penalties for leaving trenches open too long, or for not removing rocks before backfilling. “Lime, fertilizer, grass seed, all of that I’m controlling. I don’t want them bringing in wild weeds out of Indiana. All that needs to go into pipeline agreements. What will we lose to shortages? How long is it going to take to get the soil back into condition? All legitimate questions. You look at some of these pipelines, not so much around here, some of that’s never going to return to normal.”

Despite a grower’s awareness of potential damage, Godwin says that drillers are generally good about trying to work with people. “Originally, there were a lot of cowboys. Those days are done. I don’t know that we need more monitoring, more regulations. Educated people will do more than government any time.”

Donnan sees it differently. “They came in and knew they could be cowboys, got away with it, saved money. Then people caught up with them …”

What bothers Godwin are the big trucks on the roads at school bus time; he’d accept regulation on that. But damage to public roads, from an estimated 1,000 heavy truck trips per well? “Yeah, they tore up lots of roads,” Godwin says. “But I could show you township roads that were nothing more than horse trails; you could drive a Ferrari down them now.” I can’t help recalling miles of badly patched roads, futile “No Heavy Rig Parking” signs, young company men driving gigantic trucks at testosterone speeds. I’d watched them thunder through tiny Prosperity, Pennsylvania, in rain so blinding I’d pulled to the curb.

“Gas drilling,” Godwin continues, “has been a big boon to this area. My thing to these people who are whooping and hollering,” he says, leering at Donnan, “is I wanna shut your gas off if you wanna keep bitching …”

“ … about my tap water being contaminated,” Donnan finishes. They both laugh.

Donnan shows me a few more sites, his frustration palpable: unhealthy homes, abuse of permit and tax laws, dump-if-you-can mentality, federal subsidies to an industry making record profits. Being attacked for objecting clearly rankles. “That old thing about turning your gas off,” Donnan snorts as we head back. “Just because you heat with gas doesn’t mean you have to accept them polluting your tap water.”

“West Virginians,” says Charlie Yuill, “are accustomed to other people doing things on the land and passing the costs over to us.” He gestures toward a GIS screen dotted with drilling locations. Yuill heads West Virginia University’s landscape architecture and environmental design program, researching large-scale issues at its Natural Resource Analysis Center.

“Many communities are pretty unprepared for this catastrophe,” he continues. “Counties have planning but don’t employ professional planners.” State laws about drilling, he says, are “pretty decent at the site scale, but there’s no cumulative impact analysis. In mining, there is.” Drilling’s impact is considered one well at a time because that’s how permits are administered.

“Everybody thinks the evil is these well pads. But pads have standard mitigation; along major pipelines it isn’t nearly as good. They’ll herbicide the easements, remove any woody vegetation. I’ve seen them go up and down 40-degree slopes. Pipelines and roads are probably five to 10 times as much acreage as the drilling pads. There’s an amazing amount of landscape fragmentation.”

Later that day I talk with several of Yuill’s recent landscape architecture graduates who work as mappers for Marcellus drillers. Chris Glover and Tim Husson work out of a motel room (not uncommon where worker influx overwhelms rental space). They work for an information broker. Several brokers serve each Marcellus driller. “Technically, we’re self-employed, contracted to a company that’s contracted to another com-pany,” Husson says. Subcontracting—of everything, not just mapping—appears to be standard in the drilling business. Yuill notes that “Halliburton trucks are labeled Allied Oil and Gas Services or things like that, to take it down a notch. They want to look local.” Wright says subcontracting allows the gasmen “to keep their hands out of liability issues.” He, however, was required “to have a million dollars of insurance on my car, out of my pocket.”

“We’re creating databases,” Glover explains. “Who owns the surface, who owns the minerals under these tracts, if there’s an active well, getting plats, showing where different companies have leases. I’ve got probably 50-60 projects, 10-20 maps each week.”

All of them consider their landscape architecture backgrounds advantageous. “We have an upper hand in knowing how to present a map, from our classes,” Husson says. But the land focus can be painful. Wright recalls walking a proposed pipeline with an ecologist and a surveyor. They recommended staying out of a wetland but were told, “just pay the fine.” “That was a rough day,” Wright says. So was being told to show up at public meetings and speak in favor of drilling—or be fired.

They miss creative design but point out that many first jobs are just digitizing. Wright recently completed an environment and community master’s program and hopes to help communities plan better. Husson sees a related opportunity: “A little further education, (and I could) get into reclamation of well pad sites.”

None of these recent graduates is naïve about drilling’s downside. (Three of them repeat the exploding-faucets-occur-naturally line, as though memorized.) But, like Hoss Godwin, they believe in safe drilling, and in people’s ability to protect their interests, especially using social media.

Glover says that West Virginia University used to be lucky to keep 10 percent of its graduates in the state, but drilling has created opportunities. “Most of us are from here, born and raised,” he says. “If any of us thought it was really going to degrade quality of life, we wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

It’s a long drive from Pittsburgh to Scranton. I make it longer by hunting down some Pennsylvania towns with names like Energy, Independence, and Good Intent—hard to find, but the road to it is paved (with petroleum products). A loop north takes me through Titusville, site of the first commercial oil well in 1859. Population boomed; deforestation accompanied drilling; floods washed oil field equipment downstream; petroleum distillates caught fire, killing 60. After an 1890s bust, nearby Enterprise reverted to rural life. Pithole City became a ghost town. Oil City remains glutted with grand real estate. When I get there, Marcellus drilling hasn’t arrived yet, but one resident tells me, “Everybody’s down at the courthouse.”

“Did you come through Allegheny National Forest?” Tom McLane asks me when I arrive at McLane Associates in Scranton. Like most landscape people I’ve talked to, he considers Allegheny drilling a tragedy and an omen. McLane, an adjunct professor of wetlands ecology at Scranton’s Keystone College, organized a 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) panel on getting Marcellus work. Drilling and fracking are bringing “big changes in the landscape,” he says. “It’s something we have almost nothing to do with, yet that’s our business.”

When mortgages tanked, drilling (which McLane calls “predatory”) moved in on the weakened economy. “We as landscape architects were sitting in the shadow of this gas field saying, ‘where’s our role?’” As he reminded the ASLA panel’s 300 attendees, every well, compressor, and pipeline has an impact on stormwater, which Pennsylvania landscape architects are licensed to manage.

The conversation returns to the Alleghenies. “They’re drilling the only pristine areas of the state that weren’t affected by previous waves of resource extraction.” McLane shakes his head. “We’ve been screwed by railroads. We’ve been screwed by coal. Now we’ve been screwed by gas.”

“I’ve always been a proponent of natural gas,” McLane says, like many thoughtful environmentalists. “Of all the bad things in the energy market, natural gas is not the worst. It’s just that it’s a secret society.”

Our friends in government don’t value the land surface,” says Neil Korostoff, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Penn State. “They’re granting permits for one well every 10 acres. We’re going to be punctured like paper hit by birdshot.”

Korostoff is a longtime board member of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, which distributes grants to help communities affected by drilling. One result is the website Frac Tracker, which maps shale formations, wells, complaints, and other information.

“It’s the same story,” Korostoff reflects. “One wave of resource extraction after another passes through the same shattered communities, the same dispirited regions. Little ability to fight back, great susceptibility to promises. They’re not even getting work out of it. The skilled labor crews are from Texas and Oklahoma. There’s a minor boom in hotels and diners in old coal communities, but no lasting positive impact.”

Fracking worries—from the public and regulators alike—seem focused on subsurface concerns such as groundwater, or earthquakes triggered by fracking. Surface damage may be larger: the consumption of scarce water and the disposal of fracking fluid. Korostoff points out that the Marcellus layer (unlike other shales) lies nearly a mile deep, where fracking poses limited risks to groundwater. “Land surface impacts should involve landscape architects, but we’re not asked to participate.” The state permit is just a checklist, Korostoff says. “Any impact on water? Just check ‘No.’ Same for cultural impacts. If there was any real enforcement, there would be a market for my services to analyze and mitigate impacts.”

Rolling past miles of fading Pennsylvania farms, I have time to think about what happens to landscapes when drilling arrives. Both the Marcellus region and my home in Santa Fe County are rural. But in New Mexico land is mostly split estate—absentees, not surface owners, profit from drilling. There’s a different mix of surface owners, too: Turn over a rock in Santa Fe County and you’ll find a lawyer or environmentalist, maybe both. The drillers’ grab for low-hanging fruit backfired in Santa Fe.

At first, confusion and fear reigned. News, rumors, and legal questions flew across my neighborhood’s email lists: Shouldn’t groundwater trump mineral rights? Are scenery and wildlife just NIMBY (not in my backyard) values? What about archaeological ruins? Eight hundred people came to one community meeting, many assuming that all our officials were co-opted.

At first, residents wanted to ban all drilling, something we quickly learned would never stand up in court. The wildcatters threatened to sue the county into bankruptcy, and their saber-rattling was clearly taking a toll on the commissioners and the county attorney. A few us decided to offer our land-related expertise to help them. It sounds so obvious with hindsight, but in the tense and suspicious atmosphere at the time, it was a leap beyond faith.

A self-described “recovering oil executive” gave us all a crash course in unconventional technologies like directional drilling. The ability to “steer” the drill means the well pad doesn’t have to sit directly over the petroleum reservoir.

A land-use lawyer explained “takings,” the Fifth Amendment clause requiring compensation if private property is taken for public use. The wildcatters took the industry standard position: Any regulation of drilling “takes” their rights. But the Supreme Court, as it turns out, has ruled that regulation is not “taking” unless 90-plus percent of potential for development is denied.

I explained that by clustering multiple directionally drilled wells on a single pad, they can be rationally sited to avoid homes and surface features.

Helping the county staff understand the landscape issues proved critical to the whole process. It didn’t hurt to have real local investigative reporting, an Emmy-winning filmmaker in the area, or a former energy czar as governor. But the ultimate focus was on protecting this land, using the practical and legal tools of landscape planning.

County officials established a one-year moratorium on drilling permits. The nationally-known land-use lawyer Robert Freilich and his team were hired to help county staff define a “do it right or not at all” ordinance. The county now requires payment, as a permit condition, for infrastructure improvements (roads, emergency services) necessitated by oil or gas operations. Drillers are limited in how much acreage may be disturbed for pads and roads—per well, and total. Before a driller or owner can claim “takings,” he must exhaust possibilities that include transfer of development rights via a “rights bank,” an idea widely used for other developmental regulation. Finally, there are the required best practices (setbacks, screening, remediation, etc.) that typically form the whole of a conventional ordinance.

These requirements are incentives for clustered drilling, which protects surface features. In 2008, the commission unanimously adopted the ordinance. I’ve heard it called one of the toughest in the country. It’s under threat every legislative session—every year, some industry-funded legislator tries to deny New Mexico citizens any say in oil and gas.

Heading down I-81 to fly home, I put the music on full blast. I’ve spent nearly 10 days confronting the reality of drilling and fracking, and I’m near my limit. The gashed forests and farms are intensely disturbing and the data crowds my brain. And, like everyone else, I’m embedded in the fuel addiction; I’ve just driven 1,400 research miles in a gasoline vehicle.

Rounding a bend on the interstate, I nearly skid the car when I see a green freeway sign for Frackville. I imagine a Wild West town full of economically desperate workers and their vices, but there’s no drilling here. Once dependent on the coal industry, Frackville is a fairly typical Pennsylvania town, home to a mall and a famous diner. An explanation of the founder’s name (Daniel Frack, 1861) catches my eye: “from Middle Low German vrak: greedy, stingy, damaged, useless.”

With shales underlying more than half our states and a juggernaut eager to drill them, vrak may sum up the landscape of our future.

Kim Sorvig is a landscape architect, design critic, and environmental author who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Reprinted from Landscape Architecture Magazine (June 2013), the monthly magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

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