Meet the insurgents on the front line of America’s fracking war
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo made headlines at the end of last year when he announced a ban on hydraulic fracking in his state. That was unquestionably a victory for environmentalists, but in neighboring Pennsylvania, however, fracking is still underway. This summer, I visited the northeastern region of the Keystone State to see what the the front lines of America's shale gas boom looks like.
Far off the radar of Google Maps, I found Craig Stevens mowing the front lawn on his 115-acre property in Susquehanna County. Craig, a former National Rifle Association recruiter, hasn't had a drink from his faucet in about a year and a half, and for good reason.
"Blood started shooting out of my face," he told me at his home, licking the sweat off of his gray mustache. "The water started tasting like metal. Slightly at first, then it got stronger. I had spontaneous nosebleeds. Eight of them over two weeks. I couldn't figure out what it was, but the day I stopped drinking the water is the day the nosebleeds stopped." Craig had the water tested. "Barium and strontium levels are through the roof," he said.
Back in 2007, representatives of Chesapeake Energy visited Craig's now deceased 95-year-old grandmother in a nursing home. For $50 an acre, they convinced her to sell the mineral rights to the property, which has been in Craig's family for six generations. Craig and his siblings later negotiated the fee up to $8,000 an acre and a 20 percent cut of everything that is extracted, but he's still pissed that Chesapeake had the gall to hustle his grandma. And he's bitter now that his water has gone bad.
"They won't do anything about it, because they won't admit they did anything wrong," he said.
Chesapeake, which declined to comment for this article, has since sold off portions of its mineral rights to others. "Now," Craig observes, "the state of Norway owns a third of the mineral rights under my property"—a reference to Statoil, an energy company principally owned by the Norwegian government that possesses a non-operational stake in the miniature goldmine of gas beneath his home. WPX Energy, which operates the well beneath Craig's property, declined to comment for this piece, as did most of the other companies mentioned here. Statoil is the exception—a spokesman would not comment on the specifics of Craig's allegations, but I was told that the company works with operators to ensure drilling is conducted "in a safe, responsible, and profitable manner."
Craig isn't the only person in the neighborhood with questionable drinking water. During my visit Alex Lotorto, who grew up in nearby Milford, held up a jar of water in Craig's kitchen. "Watch this," Alex said as black silt at the bottom of the container rose to the surface, coagulating at the magnet he pressed against the glass. "This sample was taken from next property over. It's full of heavy metals."
Craig has turned his house into a base for activists like Alex, who are documenting the extraordinary process of industrialization underway in this agricultural community. They're taking water samples, collecting the stories of people whose water and land has turned foul, and organizing the local citizenry to protest the drilling.
Pennsylvania has been an epicenter of fracking because it sits on the Marcellus Shale Formation, which is sometimes described as the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas" due to the rich deposits of methane it contains. Natural gas production in Pennsylvania has increased from less than 2 billion cubic feet per day in 2007 to surpass 15 billion cubic feet per day this July, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
As we talked around Craig's kitchen table, Vera Scroggins, who has been helping Alex monitor the local water, stopped by to pick up a few more testing kits. The retired nurse and longtime resident of Susquehanna County offered to give me a tour of the surrounding area so I hopped in her Prius.
Along Susquehanna's narrow country roads, we passed numerous derricks and long stretches of land that had been excavated and patched back up with mud and straw outlining where pipelines passed beneath. Vera has given these tours to school groups, conservationists, and reporters in the past—so many, in fact, that Cabot Oil and Gas, one of the region's most prolific drillers, has an injunction against her, obtained from a local judge last October, that prevents her from setting foot on company-owned property.
"They got tired of me sniffing around," Vera told me.
When we came upon an active worksite with a Cabot sign in front of it, Vera held up a video camera and drove slowly past, filming. We looped back around for another look—by then the workers had lined up along the roadside to stare us down. A derrick, perhaps 30 feet high, towered over the shoulders of the regiment in orange construction vests.
I'd spent the previous night drinking with drill rig operators and listening to their stories at the Shadowbrook Inn and Resort, a country getaway surrounded by a golf course about 20 miles away in Tunkhannock, a town that has turned into a de facto encampment for migrant gas company workers.
The bar attached to the hotel was elbow-to-elbow with men fresh from the gas fields. Quite a few were veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. They traveled to Shadowbrook from across the region in search of the six-figure salaries promised to those who are willing to work the grueling 12-hour shifts that drilling companies demand.
"When I head out on a job, I tell my old lady, 'This might be the last time you see me,'" one worker told me.
The pay is high, especially for those without a higher education but, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, oil and gas workers are 7.6 times more likely to die on the job than the national average. Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and released last month show that the oil and gas industry, including the American Petroleum Institute, sought for decades to cover up the toxic effects of benzene exposure, a chemical solvent in used in drilling. But the men I spoke with at Shadowbrook in August tried to dismiss the risks they faced.
"Everybody is like, 'Environment this, environment that,'" one said, wiggling the digits on his callused hands. "I've been doing this for years and I've still got all my fingers and toes."
The workers were friendly, but now that I was with Vera, who was filming, we were eyed with suspicion. If she were to park, exit her vehicle, or attempt to speak to them, she would be in violation of Cabot's injunction.
Though the court order was amended in March to include only active fracking sites operated by Cabot, it originally barred Vera from the 40 percent of Susquehanna County—312.5 square miles—where the company owns mineral rights. This prohibited her from entering local grocery stores, going to the nearest hospital, even from visiting old friends—wherever Cabot owns a stake in the gas beneath the ground.
As we drove along, a brown SUV sped by and the driver snapped our picture. Needless to say, Vera is a bit paranoid, because drillers in the industry view activists like Vera as insurgents.
In audio recordings of a 2012 oil and gas industry conference in Houston obtained by CNBC, Matt Carmichael, manager of external affairs for Anadarko Petroleum, advised attendees to read Rumsfeld's Rules (Donald Rumsfeld's guide to life and war), and to download the Army's counter-insurgency manual. In a separate recording from the same conference, Matt Pitzarella, director of communications for the gas exploration firm Range Resources, bragged that his company employed several former Army psychological operations specialists, noting that they had been "very helpful" in Pennsylvania.
It hasn't hurt the industry either that it's been given a royal welcome by lawmakers, who have cut the Department of Environmental Protection's budget by 40 percent since 2009. A 2012 executive order from Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett has compelled the Department to approve drilling permits "as expeditiously as possible," which they have done by the thousands. A 2012 law passed by the state legislature allows drillers to keep the chemicals used in the fracking process secret. Under a medical provision in the measure, doctors treating patients can see the list of chemicals, but only after signing a nondisclosure agreement.
Frustrated with the lack of will to police fracking they have encountered locally, many of the insurgents in Pennsylvania's fracking war have turned their attention to halting the transmission of the gas, targeting a slew of new federally regulated infrastructure projects aimed at getting methane pulled from the ground in their backyards over to markets on the Eastern seaboard and abroad.
Before I went to Susquehanna, I visited Alex Lotorto this July in Washington, DC. When I met him, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) employees were stepping over him and his friends, trying not to make eye contact.
He and a number of other environmental activists had planned to disrupt business as usual at the commission's headquarters in DC on July 14. Homeland Security and local cops succeeded in preventing an all-out barricade of the federal building, but the activists continued to sit about four feet from the entrance until they were dragged off to jail. Instead of protest banners, they held several large county maps of northeastern Pennsylvania, each speckled with little green dots representing the more than 7,600 wells that have been fracked so far in the region.
Coinciding with the fracking boom, FERC has given its stamp of approval to 451 natural gas transportation projects since 2006—pipelines, compressor stations, storage facilities, and multiple export terminals. Alex's logic goes that if companies lack the means to transport their product from the remote gas fields of Pennsylvania they will be less likely to drill.
This new generation of gas infrastructure could carry with it many of the same pollution risks associated with drilling. Perhaps the largest project approved by FERC yet is a $3.8 billion liquefied natural gas terminal owned by Dominion Energy in Cove Point, Maryland, that by 2016 will be exporting gas from places like Susquehanna County.
"If we can't stop this thing, I just hope we can sell our house and get the hell out of here," said Rachel Heinhorst, a literature professor at the University of Southern Maryland who lives with her husband and two children across the street from Cove Point. A giant wall designed to act as a sound barrier to the massive turbines the project requires now obstructs the view from Heinhorst family's front porch where they used to sit and watch deer eat from the pear tree on the other side of the road.
Natural gas is highly combustive and Rachel worries she and her family could die of an explosion in the middle of the night if the 800 million cubic feet of gas Dominion is transporting goes boom.
Cove Point will be the first natural gas export terminal built in this country in 30 years and more are slated to follow in Texas and Louisiana. Meanwhile, in New York earlier this month FERC approved the Constitution Pipeline, which will carry gas fracked in northeastern Pennsylvania through the state. In May of 2014, the commission green lit plans by Texas-based Crestwood Midstream to store natural gas in abandoned salt caverns in upstate in Seneca Lake. (Forty people were arrested for trespassing on Crestwood property one day before Governor Cuomo issued a ban on fracking in the state.)
When I was among the anti-fracking activists holed up at Craig's house in Susquehanna County, I asked them about their endgame strategy. I wondered what they saw as an alternative to all this drilling, considering we do need fuel, after all. Assuming it doesn't leak into the atmosphere, natural gas burns cleaner than coal or oil, making it more appealing to some from a climate change perspective.
"There's solar and wind power," said Allison Petryk, a 27-year-old volunteer from New Jersey. Looking up from where she sat in front of a map of wells spread on Craig's living room carpet, she added: "But you can't lease the wind. You can't frack the sun."