The sign at the end of Jill Wiener's driveway simply reads "No Frack." The declaration reflects her two-year effort to keep natural gas wells off her and her neighbors' property.
Wiener lives in Sullivan County, New York, 9 miles east of the scenic Delaware River near the Pennsylvania border. Tourism and agriculture drive the region's economy. "It's very mellow and beautiful," she says, the kind of place "where people sit outside to watch the fireflies at night."
Now the bucolic landscape may be under threat, Wiener muses, due to the "domino effect" of a new drilling method spreading eastward across the United States.
Sullivan County overlies the Marcellus Shale formation that stretches 150,000 square miles from New York across most of Pennsylvania, through parts of Maryland, Ohio and West Virginia.
The formation contains enough natural gas to heat the nation for two decades or more. Improved recovery technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made the resource economical to extract in recent years, fueling a drilling frenzy as well as highly publicized environmental concerns.
Recent reports reveal that wastewater from the practice contains radioactive material and is being dumped in public waters. Gas companies say fracking is safe.
The heart of the action is in Pennsylvania for now. Wiener's state of New York has a fracking moratorium until July 3, though many upstate residents have already signed leases with gas companies. Wiener says she isn't taking any chances.
For two years she has worked to educate her community about potential air and water pollution through a group called Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. The volunteer organization confronts gas industry representatives at town meetings and set up screenings of the anti-fracking documentary "Gasland."
"We really feel the key to success in defeating fracking as an option for gas extraction is education," she says. "[I'm] all about pushing information forward, and being cautious."
The most powerful learning tool for advocates in areas unaccustomed to gas exploration may be the Web.
Thanks to a series of social networking tools called ExtrAct developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Wiener has connected online with citizens who have lived for decades among the gas fields. A small but growing group of users shares personal stories of drilling impacts such as contaminated water wells and health problems.
"It sure is nice to be able to see what people in other places have experienced," says Wiener.
ExtrAct was founded three years ago at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media in the midst of the Marcellus boom to empower anxious landowners in their dealings with industry leasing agents, or "landmen," who offer tough-to-resist deals.
In Pennsylvania, natural gas companies have already leased about 7 million acres of public and private property — about one-quarter of the state's entire land mass — according to state authorities. Landowners can rake in millions with the initial lease and ensuing royalties.
"We have a lot of information [about drilling] from the industry, and from the states," explains Chris Csikszentmihályi, director of the Center for Future Civic Media, "but very little info from actual people who encounter the industry as regular citizens."
This is one of those "key moments when information will make a big difference," Csikszentmihályi adds.
In early 2009, ExtrAct launched its first in a trio of tools — the Landman Report Card, which allows people to post critiques of landmen online.
"We heard stories of landmen using certain tactics to get people to sign faster," says Christina Xu, former project director of ExtrAct, claiming that some landowners ended up signing bad leases. "By the time people realized the consequences, the landmen were long gone," making it hard to track them down.
"ExtrAct creates a network of stories in the public eye," Xu says.
She compares it to eating at a restaurant: When you're dining out, you feel entitled to good service. If you don't get it, you can post an online review that is unflattering for the restaurant. Similarly, Landman Report Card users rate individual landmen based on their honesty and knowledge.
Many landmen receive some form of positive feedback. Knowledgeable. Forthright about development plans. Others are tagged with a slew of critiques. Unethical business practices. Misinformation. Unavailable for contact.