January 16th, 2009
America in Gridlock
[RADIO] There's Gas in Them Thar Hills

Over the past few years, prospectors have been combing the hills of Pennsylvania. They’re not looking for gold. The mineral that’s setting off the frenzy is shale. It’s a mile or more below ground, and it’s full of natural gas — maybe enough to fuel the entire U.S. for two years.

The gas rush could make some Pennsylvanians rich. But, it could also pollute the state’s air and water as the gas-grab can put serious stress on a community’s infrastructure.

And, that’s set up a conflict between natives of the area and weekenders — mostly New Yorkers — who own second homes there. Blueprint America — with Weekend America — goes to Northeastern Pennsylvania to look into what’s pitting neighbor against neighbor in what could unsettle the area’s infrastructure.


Over the past few years, prospectors have been combing the hills of Pennsylvania. They aren’t looking for gold – instead, the mineral that’s setting off the frenzy is shale. It’s known as the Marcellus Shale, it lies a mile or more below ground, and it’s full of natural gas – maybe enough to fuel the entire United States for two years.

The “gas rush” could make some Pennsylvanians rich. But it could also pollute the state’s air and water. And that’s set up a conflict between natives of the area and “weekenders” – mostly New Yorkers – who own second homes there.

Bill Bryant’s family moved to Damascus Township, Pennsylvania close to a hundred and seventy years ago – in 1841. I observe that that means he has pretty deep roots there. “Yeah, they cleared the land here,” he laughs. “They were Connecticut Yankees.”

It’s gorgeous land – pretty much the definition of “bucolic” – with lush, gentle hills and a view of the Catskill Mountains in the distance. Bryant’s a dairy farmer. But he’s also watching a gas company – slowly – move into the area.

“That whole side hill over there is signed up with Cheaspeake,” he says, gesturing to the north. “And like I say, the guy across the road is signed up with Cheaspeake. The guy across the road probably only signed for $1,400. And that guy” — he gestures back to the north — “signed for a couple thousand. But they did get up to about $2,800 here.”

That’s how much the gas companies were paying per acre just as a signing bonus. At that rate, Bryant would’ve earned $728,000 on his 260 acres. And once the wells started pumping gas from under his land, he’d earn a percentage of the revenues.

But he didn’t sign – in part because he and his family have questions about the environmental impact of drilling.

Here’s why: The fuel’s actually trapped in little pockets in the shale. Tom Murphy of the Penn State Cooperative Extension says that to get the gas OUT of those pockets, energy companies use a technique called hydraulic fracturing — forcing millions of gallons of water into bore-holes at extremely high pressure to break open the brittle shale. Then the gas companies pump sand into the holes; the grains prop open the tiny cracks in the rock. Once the water gets pumped out, the gas can flow up to the surface – and ultimately to your furnace.

The thing is, energy companies aren’t pumping just water and sand into the ground. The fluid that they use is actually a soup that contains scores of chemicals – and some of those ingredients are toxic. They can cause brain and kidney damage, even cancer. And environmentalists say, given the track record of operations like this in Texas and across the West, there’s almost no oversight when it comes to disposing of the fluid. So it might end up in the water table, or in lakes and streams, or even evaporating. And because of those risks, they want the drilling to stop.

Every weekend, Joe Levine and Jane Ciphers leave their home in Brooklyn for a barn that they converted into a weekend home not far from Bryant’s farm. It’s where the anti-drilling movement meets to talk strategy.

Levine and Ciphers helped organize a group called Damascus Citizens for Sustainability. A lot of locals think they’re nothing but NIMBYs. But Pat Carullo, another of the group’s organizers, said there’s something much bigger at stake. “This is not our back yard. This is the drinking water source for 15 million Americans.”

As he talks, he gestures out a wall of windows in Levine and Ciphgers’ weekend home with a sweeping view of the Delaware River a couple hundred feet downhill. New York City’s reservoirs are upstream, and Philadelphia and Wilmington tap the Delaware Watershed downstream.

The locals say they understand that – that, as farmers, they’re well aware of the environmental risks, and they’re trying to minimize them. They accuse the city people of being condescending, treating them like ignorant rubes. They say it’s like the two sides aren’t even speaking the same language.

Pat Carullo says he knows what language he’s speaking “I’m speaking English. I don’t exactly know what language someone might be speaking who says, ‘We understand that the gas and oil industry is operating under total Federal deregulation, we understand that there’s going to be a catastrophic result from thousands of gas wells in a watershed which is protected by a sitting act of Congress, and we’re going to proceed anyway.’ I don’t understand – that doesn’t seem to me like English.”

The locals also say that the gas companies are in Pennsylvania to stay; that drilling is inevitable. But Barbara Arrindell – another organizer of Damascus Citizens – says nothing is inevitable. “The inevitability of someone who was born into an African-American, a Negro, or whatever terminology of dark skin – in this country – it was inevitable that they were going to be a slave,” she argues. “Now, that’s not the case today.”

“But it took a war to establish that,” I say.

“Well, it might take a war to do this,” she snaps back, and her fellow environmentalists laugh. “If someone’s only looking at what’s gonna go in [their] pocket, and [they] don’t care about anything else, then that’s the language that they might have to understand – that they will be sued. That there are costs involved in this beyond what is just going to go into their pocket.”

A lot of the farmers in the area just roll their eyes when you mention the Damascus Citizens. They see the environmentalists as carpetbaggers who just don’t understand farm life. Some of the group’s members are “weekenders”; others live in the area full-time. But most of its leaders are New Yorkers – city people. They’re part of a wave of city people who’ve been moving into the area for years now. As they buy and build homes, property taxes rise. And it gets harder to run dairy farms.

Bill Bryant, the farmer whose family’s been working the land here for nearly a hundred seventy years, says he’s tried to adapt to the changes by opening an artisanal cheesemaking operation. But not without some misgivings. “I’m personally maybe a little bit anti-city-people,” he says. “but the cheese thing works better with the city people. So we’re trying to take advantage of what’s happened in the area. Because the trend in dairy farmers is just to keep getting bigger, and we’re almost the biggest in the county now and we don’t wanna get any bigger, so at that point you gotta look to do something else.”

Fort some of his neighbors, “something else” comes down to two choices: Either sign a gas lease … or sell off the land. “And those places are basically in jeopardy of being subdivided, and somebody from the city would get a hold of them,” he says. “So are we better off with those places subdivided and more city people in the area, or are we better off with the people who’ve been here a hundred years keeping those tracts in the family and getting some money from gas to pay their taxes and keep the land? I don’t know which is worse.”

Bill Bryant has time to make up his mind: Gas companies have cut back on signing new leases thanks to the economy. Meanwhile, else where in Pennsylvania drilling’s already taking place. Its opponents are lobbying lawmakers to stop it before it goes any farther.

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