Health

The True Costs and Benefits of Fracking

Economic considerations were paramount, of course. For financially strapped homeowners, monthly royalty checks enabled a modest nest egg, a nice pickup, a new roof, their first dishwasher. Leasing allowed some to hold on to the family farm. One man poignantly described his wish to fund a college education for his granddaughter.

Those dreams came with a price, though, often concurrent with the royalty checks. Even adamant supporters of drilling admitted that it had wreaked havoc on their lives. The very things that had attracted them to the area—natural beauty, peace and quiet, dark skies full of stars—were stripped away once fracking moved in. For some, their immediate shelter suffered, too. Big rigs and earthmovers rattled one house until the chimney collapsed. In others, tap water turned cloudy. “Fracking is intimate,” Jerolmack writes. Some of the transgressed ended up silenced by nondisclosure agreements after reaching settlement deals. “They have us by the balls,” one such resident told Jerolmack.

Yet the judgmental “fractivism” of outsiders—Yoko Ono is among the many who have traveled from New York City to advocate for fracking bans in rural Pennsylvania—provoked understandable resentment. Natural gas, Jerolmack notes, powers more New York homes than any other energy source, and much of it comes from places like Billtown.

Jerolmack met just one person, he writes with admiration, “who regularly traversed the political, economic, and cultural divides” of Williamsport: Ralph Kisberg, who co-founded a local organization called the Responsible Drilling Alliance. He was the quintessential centrist, critical of fracking but more interested in efforts to mitigate its ill effects than in the far-off goal of ending it. Kisberg went to nearly every permit meeting, drove back roads to chat up landowners, compiled his findings in the group’s newsletter. This approach, an information blitz devoid of judgment, was the opposite of a bumper sticker and fostered constructive discussion where many an argument along national party lines breaks down.

Those party lines did not always predict gas-drilling decisions in Billtown. One area resident, Cindy Bower—a former schoolteacher who belonged to Kisberg’s anti-fracking advocacy group, held signs on the first Earth Day, in 1970; drove a Prius; and was married to a wealthy hotelier—shook Jerolmack’s assumptions. She and her husband, who lived on 150 acres of hilly woods and fields with a big pond, had refused leasing pitches for three years. But as everyone around them leased, often for financial reasons that Bower did not begrudge, industry moved in and their quality of life deteriorated. In the end, Bower and her husband leased their land. She told Jerolmack with some sorrow that holding out had accomplished nothing, and the money was at least some compensation for what they had lost.

photo of an oil worker facing away from camera
An oil worker (Alec Soth / Magnum)

Jerolmack warns eco-conscious readers against feeling superior to either liberal Bower or her conservative neighbors. “To the extent that most of us continue to uncritically organize our lives around carbon-intensive energy sources,” he writes, “we are coconspirators.” To be spared the dire environmental impacts of our species is a privilege.

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