“The bottom line is, natural gas is creating jobs,” said President Barrack Obama in 2013. This built a discourse that promoted hydraulic fracturing as America’s golden ticket to energy prosperity. At the same time, small towns across the Marcellus shale –covering the northeastern Appalachia region of the United States– are being discovered for their shale resources.
This was the case in Carrollton, Ohio, a sleepy town tucked amongst farmland, that was slyly and powerfully consumed by out-of-state workers and trucks with license plates from Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania. Landmen knocked on doors with pre-written checks in hand, hundreds of thousands on a piece a paper that could be yours with a quick signature. White industry pick-ups and 18-wheel brine transporters dominated the roads. Two hotels were built near the highway exit in a matter of weeks. Nearby rural farming villages became flooded with extra money as public land was leased. The air buzzed with the promise of jobs and economic growth. It was a boom town in full swing.
After three years, in December 2016, John Taylor took me on a drive around Carroll County, about two hours away from the state capital of Columbus. The landscape is dotted with frack pads, he estimates about 150 or 400 individual wells. Once I started taking notice it felt as if they were behind every hilltop, hidden in every cluster of leafless trees. Nearly every parcel of land is leased out as it’s easier for landowners to sign than be taken to unitization court, a system akin to mandatory pooling.
Chesapeake of Oklahoma owns most of the activity here, although as John pointed out, they are overextended and profit is increasingly difficult to come by. Production continues, but new drilling has moved south. Part of the reason is a dip in international prices and the proliferation of domestic natural gas production in states such as Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania. It surprised me that global market conditions can be felt in Carrollton, a town too small to have a grocery store.
Carrollton, like so many other towns located in the Marcellus shale region, is a bust town now. On every road in town there are ‘for rent’ signs, indicative of the transient trail of out-of-state workers. The gas company offices that were once set up on the main street are no longer occupied and brine trucks rarely speed around corners. What’s left is a land mussed with development, more consuming than frack pads the size of football fields, more complex with each person I speak to, and more destructive than the industry will admit.
It’s not just what meets the eye – oil and gas infrastructure expands underground, a web of pipelines and terminals. Lateral wells run under homes and frack waste is buried in unassuming fields. Each step, each connection, is chance for human or mechanical error, creating a landscape awaiting trauma. Injection wells hold millions of gallons of radioactive frack waste, compressor stations howl twenty-four-seven, and cryogenic plants light up the vast night sky as they extract components of natural gas liquids including butane, ethane and propane. As we pass one such plant, a draconian sight among rolling hills, John reiterates that for every one acre of frack pad, seven more acres of infrastructure must accompany.
The amount of disruption is excessive, and often can’t be described monetarily. Beyond broken neighbor relationships as money and environmental harm are distributed unevenly, health concerns run abound; people in proximity to activity are developing respiratory illnesses and cancer. From John, I am connected to Dave and Susan Brown, a couple who have become spokespeople for fracking-induced illnesses. Dave collapsed in his kitchen about a year ago after chemical air drifted into their home from a nearby frack well, a smell he describes as stronger than a can of Raid bug spray. Susan’s cancer has returned. It may be easy to dismiss their struggles, as many neighbors do, in favor of viewing the Brown’s as money-gaining landowners who consciously leased. But misinformation or flat-out false information is often heard before the truth. Dave says the lease wasn’t worth the ink and paper he wrote on, while Susan softly mutters behind him, “If we had known even half of what we’ve found out since we signed, there’s absolutely no way we would have gotten involved.”
What doesn’t help is the regulatory power concentrated in state hands. In 2004 all decisions regarding fracking permissions were placed with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, an overextended and understaffed agency with a confused charter of advancing company profits and protecting citizens. By 2015 an Ohio Supreme Court ruling backed up that cities or counties have no say in regulating or banning fracking, even those with home rule. The Community Bill of Rights in Youngstown, aiming to ban fracking and all associated development in the northeastern city riddled with injection wells and a history of correlated earthquakes, has failed six times. Even if local officials are on board with citizen concerns, they have essentially no power. A local activist Kathy Adams states clearly, “You can come in here and inform, but if you want something you need to get to the state level. Hopefully they will listen to you. I doubt they will.” In accordance, landowners are all but silenced. The limited voice of the people makes sure there are no big wins in these small towns.
TAKING A TOLL ON THE COMMUNITY
I spoke to a family living in Seneca Township, Noble County, a place of scattered villages with populations no larger than 1,000. The Thompson’s own the land where one the largest frack pads in Ohio is located, placed somewhat derisively on a hill that looks out on sprawling farmland and the immense Midwestern sky. The company in control took 300 feet off the top of a historical Indian mound to build here, a lease that began fraudulently with an attempt to claim mineral rights from inactive and decades-old slant well deeds. When we spoke the drill rig was up, though it was nearly time to begin injecting the sand, toxic chemicals, and millions of gallons of fresh water needed for fracking. Some of the laterals running off this pad are 20,000 feet into our earth, reaching under the Utica Shale to the Point Pleasant formation, then making a ninety-degree turn to end under a nearby lake.
Scott and Terri deal with more than most; chemical air, constant noise, and 30 day bouts of earth shaking as rock thousands of feet deep is fissured. They have been called insurgents, hypocrites, and liars, all for trying to give voice to the injustices that run rampant. Terri tells me, “I’m certainly not an extreme environmentalist, and never was. What I am is a concerned landowner, a farmer who has had a connection with the earth for 40 years. And now my trees are dying, my waters no good, my animals have tumors on them, my grandson wakes up and can’t breathe. Something’s going on. I’m telling them.”
People are realizing that environmental practices are negligent, a travelling Hispanic population is doing most of the groundwork, and paychecks are a fraction of what was promised; a prosperity running amok. Exploitation is taking place, unavoidable and put into action with a simple signature. In the hope of jobs and economic growth people welcomed the industry – only to be covered in pipelines, steady unemployment and health concerns. Methane clouds hover invisibly in the night sky, a super-potent greenhouse gas that is emitted at every wellhead and will now be unaccounted for under Scott Pruitt’s direction at the EPA. Methane is dense and devastating to the atmosphere, about 30 times more powerful than carbon dioxide and leaking apathetically in every stage of natural gas supply chain. The air, water and land continue to be polluted as the multibillion dollar companies take advantage of their federal exemptions from the parts of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Resources Conservation and Recovery Act, the Toxic Release Inventory, and the Clean Air Act, among others.
In this area on the brim of Appalachia that has seen resource exploitation for centuries, people see fracking as money, much-needed after years of economic recession and heavy unemployment. Industry propelled myths not easily dissuaded because they are what people what to believe will happen. Understandably, the promises hang heavy even as reality hits.
*Names have been changed to agree with ethical guidelines of academic research still in process.