Gas Drilling’s ‘Haves’ and ‘Have-Nots’ Emerge in Pennsylvania

For some, fracking has meant royalty payments and employment. Still others have no land to lease and no jobs available, as they face higher living costs

a natural gas drilling rig surrounded by trucks
Gas drilling rig/Credit: Ari Moore

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Editor’s Note: SolveClimate News reporter Elizabeth McGowan traveled to Northeastern Pennsylvania in late March to find out how the gas drilling boom is affecting the landscape and the people who call it home. This is the seventh in a multi-part series. (Read parts one , two, three, four, five and six)

MONTROSE, Pa.—Ask Chris Tucker if extracting natural gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale is environmentally and economically prudent — and he offers an answer before the question is fully formed.

His response is a resounding and less-than-shocking “yes.”

“We ought to be looking for energy solutions that won’t cripple the economy and are close to home,” says Tucker, a spokesman for the gas industry advocacy organization Energy In Depth. “If that’s the premise we’re establishing, then natural gas is the choice.

“The wrong response is, ‘We shouldn’t produce natural gas in this country,'” he emphasizes. “Ultimately, we’re going to win the day because the facts and science are on our side.”

He admits that the industry has its hands fuller than ever with a communications challenge now that energy is being extracted near people’s homes in states such as Pennsylvania.

“Any energy choice has its impacts and those have to be managed,” Tucker says. “We have to be honest about the inconveniences associated with that impact. Conservation is important but let’s have an adult conversation about energy demand continuing to grow. Where is that energy going to come from? I wish it just rained down like manna from heaven. But with natural gas, you have to drill for it.”

An Energy Divide

Hydraulic fracturing, he continues, offers jobs to the unemployed and underemployed and offers a cash infusion for states slogging through a recession in the red.

Tucker has more than a professional stake in the energy future of Northeastern Pennsylvania. He grew up in the down-on-its-luck Wilkes-Barre region, the first in his family to attend college and the grandson of an adventurer who emigrated from Russia to mine coal in the Keystone State.

“The manufacturing economy is gone in that part of Pennsylvania,” he says. “This offers a chance to reinvigorate the middle class there.”

In Pennsylvania, the Marcellus Shale rests beneath the entire western half of the state and the northeastern corner. Numbers gathered by state authorities reveal that natural gas companies have thus far leased about 7 million acres of public and private property — about one-quarter of the state’s entire land mass.

That high volume prompted the Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy to delve into what impact such an intense fracking footprint will have on the flora and fauna the nonprofit organization is dedicated to protecting.

With all that is at stake, Nels Johnson, the nonprofit’s director of conservation programs, says he understands why hydraulic fracturing has become so divisive.

“Places in Northeastern Pennsylvania have never dealt with anything like this type of development before,” Johnson notes. “This is a different scale.

“It’s having a big social impact,” he continues. “Some people are clearly going to benefit. I don’t think any of us bemoan them better jobs and better jobs and more business. You can understand why folks think this is a dream come true.

“But a lot of people are not benefiting. They have no land to lease and no jobs available to them. Plus they’re paying more for everything because of all of the money flowing into the region.”

Sounds of Silence

Before the first natural gas wells were even drilled in Susquehanna County, Ellen Smith felt assured that some sort of deus ex machina would intervene. But responses from Congress, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Protection didn’t offer any quick fixes.

“That really amazed me,” says Smith, a retiree who moved to Montrose permanently six years ago after making regular visits from New York. “The fact of the matter is that the gas industry is winning.

“People who signed leases three or four years ago were sold a bill of goods,” she says. “Can you blame them now for having a sense of chagrin?”

Watching her adopted community partially unravel over fracking has been more devastating than being widowed at age 26, she explains. And she feels silenced as part of a minority that opposes drilling.

“People don’t want to talk about it, even among their friends,” she says about the inability of those for and against drilling to be honest with one another. “And when they don’t talk, they don’t act.”

That puzzles her because she is convinced county residents wouldn’t be able to stop chattering if a flood, hurricane or other natural disaster had torn the community to shreds. People would be seeking understanding and reconciliation instead of tiptoeing around and bottling up their sentiments.

The emotional and physical landscape might look and feel different, she says, if some sort of mediator had intervened early on to start a community conversation about the potential downside of embracing an energy bonanza.

“It’s a big rift,” Smith says. “Thankfully, we’re not at war yet and thankfully we can still wave at each other.”

What Dimock Wrought

Like hosts of other Montrose residents, Rebecca Bennett is mystified why Pennsylvania didn’t follow what they think is the sensible lead of its neighbor to the north, New York, and enforce some sort of shale drilling moratorium.

That more cautious path might have avoided the wrenching ruckus over drinking water that detonated two-and-half years ago in Dimock, a dot on the map of 1,400 people just a few miles south of Montrose on Highway 29.

Many in Montrose cite that acrimonious drama as not only compounding a culture of fear and mistrust but also deepening the rupture between pro- and anti-drilling forces.

Drilling opponents were thrilled when state regulators blamed Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. for contaminating residential water wells with methane gas. In Pennsylvania, Cabot is drilling solely in Susquehanna County. State authorities ordered the Houston-based company with an office in Pittsburgh to shell out $12 million to install a water line to the affected homes, which number close to 20.

Those cheers turned to astonishment, however, when regulators relented and settled with Cabot for $4.1 million, so homeowners could recoup double the value of their next-to-worthless homes.

Before state authorities reversed their initial decision, at least 1,600 water line opponents signed a petition against the water pipeline. Dimock residents were disparaged as “greedy liars.” In April 2010, Cabot hired an external affairs director to try to quell the querulous atmosphere. Drilling proponents disgusted with the idea and cost of the pipeline had covered the area with eye-popping yellow yard signs blaring “Enough Already!”

That reversal proved to be a backbreaker for drilling opponents who thought they had gained some traction with their arguments. Deflated, they realized the fight wasn’t just tiring. It was exhausting.

Too Painful to Bear

Bennett and her husband, Alan, moved to Montrose 35 years so they could raise their daughter in a country setting. Now, she notices crime reports in the local newspaper are much more abundant and wonders if the promise of local jobs is being met when she notices such a plethora out-of-state license plates.

Her neighbors who have lived in the area for several generations have signed a drilling lease but neither family has had a heart-to-heart talk about that decision. Last year, Bennett says, the atmosphere at those same neighbors’ annual Labor Day picnic was so uncomfortable, she’s not sure she can summon the fortitude to attend again this year.

“This has really hit us hard,” Bennett, who taught English at a community college in Binghamton, N.Y., for 35 years, says about the wear and tear of the hydraulic fracturing controversy. “My husband and I are both 64. We’re at the point in our lives when we want to be relaxing. This is so crazy. We thought protesting the Vietnam War was tumultuous but this is more upsetting.”

Not surprisingly, the schism is causing the Bennetts to rethink their retirement plans.

And that uncertainty isn’t just gnawing at relative newcomers to Susquehanna County. Americans’ thirst for energy means even those with deep taproots are wrestling with whether they still belong in a place they thought they would never leave.

Susan Griffis McNamara now operates the lumberyard and hardware store her great-grandfather invented during World War II. 

“It feels like you either have to fight the drilling or move,” McNamara laments as she pulls on her blue Carhartt jacket, hangs the “closed” sign on her hardware store door and heads out to her maroon pickup truck. “But either choice is difficult. Where do you go, anyway?

“When I think about it though, I just don’t know if this is home anymore.”