Under the Surface

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale by Tom Wilbur (Cornell University Press, 2012)

Tom Wilbur was a reporter with the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin when he started reporting about fracking in the Marcellus Shale, and the story turned into a full-length book. Binghamton, New York is a city in southern New York just north of the Pennsylvania border, which you reach if you take I-81 north (as I have done many times) through the Endless Mountains region of northeastern Pennsylvania. I found this book to be very enlightening. Wilbur explains that the Marcellus Shale is a geologic formation underlying the Appalachian Mountains containing a great deal of natural gas. However, retrieving the gas was impossible or unprofitable until very recently, when hydraulic fracturing (fracking for short) began to be employed. Wilbur describes the advent of fracking in northeast Pennsylvania and southern New York from the perspectives of the property owners it affected and the local and state governments who were called upon to regulate it. It is particularly interesting to see how differently the states of New York and Pennsylvania reacted. Wilbur notes that many landowners are thrilled to get the money paid by the gas companies for drilling on their lands, and still feel that the initial problems were insignificant. On the other hand, he points out two major areas of contention between the parties: the secretive and inconsistent manner in which the leases and payments were negotiated, and the environmental issues that resulted in significant loss of property values for some unfortunate landowners. Although I have read of earthquakes being attributed to fracking, that issue was not mentioned by Wilbur. Instead, he focuses on documenting known cases of explosions and methane contamination of ground water, which form an important public record since gas companies often deny that these things occurred.

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