May 21, 2012

Under the Surface

I was a bit cautious about Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. Tom Wilber's Shale Gas Review blog is always written in cautious journalistese, and to be honest a background writing for Gannett (owner of the Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette, and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin) worries me. The company's policy seems to be that sounding objective is always more important than being objective, though at least Wilber had departed before (or perhaps as part of) the last few rounds of their local news decimation.

I underestimated Wilber, though. Under the Surface achieves something better than the usual journalistic "and that's the way it is" or "he said, she said". Wilber's own voice comes through regularly to explain the big picture, and sometimes to explain his participation in a conversation or event, but most of the book is told through other people's voices. Perhaps most important, he chose a diverse enough group of voices that the book manages to avoid a simple pro- and anti-fracking polarization.

The divide is there, and it grows over the course of the book, but he doesn't start there. By starting before fracking became an intense political issue and following a few key groups of people over time, he presents a much more complex and useful story. It's not clear at the beginning which way many participants will go, or how strongly. There are some major surprises in there, and enough sympathetic characters that many points of view can come across well.

Whether you're a fracking opponent or a supporter, you should be able to find sympathetic characters in the book. I doubt Henry Kramer would read this book the same way that I did, and that's probably a good thing. I don't see the farmers trying to decide the future of their land or people trying to figure out how to survive in a place with contaminated water as villains.

There are two groups of characters, however, who generally come off looking terrible: the gas companies themselves and the regulators. In the case of the gas companies, it seems like they don't have much interest in being liked over the long term. At best they try to be nice at the beginning of the process, while they're courting people for leases, but the rest of their story is pretty completely about power. Perhaps there are readers more sympathetic to those with power who will find them positive characters - but I doubt it.

The regulators may come off even worse than the gas companies. It's less that they're personally evil, but more that they largely fail to do their job. Bureaucratic basics like record-keeping are missing from the beginning, and lost or impossible to get information is a regular theme. Overwhelmed agencies that issue permits they can't possibly keep track of can only stay sympathetic for a little while. At the top of the regulatory chain, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Secretary John Hanger comes off as a weird bitter mix of wanting to do the right thing and not actually doing much. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation Division of Mineral Resources staff seem almost a part of the industry, with only leadership pushing for regulation with teeth. Even that leadership, though, wobbles around from position to position as they navigate (or fail to navigate in Pete Grannis' case) the politics.

It's a difficult book to read in many ways. Part of the challenge was that I kept shaking my head while reading and had to pause for occasional cursing. My aging web-centric eyes wished that type was a bit larger and the paragraphs broken into smaller chunks, but those are minor flaws. (It's also weird to open the book at the Glenwood Pines and nothing that they didn't eat or drink there, but I'll blame patron geologist of the Marcellus Shale Terry Engelder for that and not Wilber, who was his guest that day.)

Also, in something that may be a relief for Dryden residents: the book doesn't tell our story. Its focus is further south, from Elmira to Deposit in New York State and mostly around Dimock in Pennsylvania, with some excursions elsewhere. There's mention of home rule and bans near the end, but no discussion of Anschutz, Tom West, or Dryden itself. Everything here is relevant, of course, to our story, but sometimes it's good to step back a little bit and see what's happening elsewhere.

Where does all this leave me? Well, first of all it leaves me happy that I'm on the north side of the border, in New York, rather than the state where I was born and went to college, Pennsylvania. As messed up as we are, reading about the Pennsylvania experience left me severely depressed. When Terry Engelder says:

The people in Dimock have already done that, in spades. It's their sacrifice, hopefully, that is necessary if the gas industry continues to evolve and help other people...

Yeah, that pretty much kills me. That's not how you're supposed to conduct experiments, and the gas industry's claims that nothing serious happened in Dimock make it a few thousand times worse.

At the same time, as much as I'd like to see a total ban that would spare the Southern Tier any chance of these disasters coming north, the stories in the book point to some kind of possible if difficult middle ground. The pieces are there - home rule legislation at the municipal level, pressure on the DEC to actively regulate and contain the gas companies, and some landowner coalitions whose proposed terms for leases sound more restrictive (and useful) than what the DEC itself had proposed.

Perhaps most important is something Wilber only mentions near the end: collapsed prices for natural gas and the stronger appeal of Utica Shale deposits further west that also contain far more valuable oil. While gas companies may still be eager to recover their sunken investments in leases in New York, drilling wells at a loss doesn't make long-term sense. That economic collapse may take the pressure off New York for a while, and let us figure out how to deal with this in a saner way.

If you can spare time to read 231 pages, whatever your take on gas drilling, you absolutely must read Under the Surface. I got my copy at Buffalo Street Books, where they still had a small stack of signed copies. It's also available online at a lot of places and I suspect (hope!) it's in our local libraries.

Posted by simon at May 21, 2012 10:41 AM in
Note on photos