Susquehanna County is classic Pennsylvania farm country that's fast turning industrial. In the last four years, 525 horizontally drilled natural gas wells have been constructed, and 200 more are permitted. Cows, horses, and sheep graze in fields bordering five-acre industrial well pads. Miles of pipeline are being laid down in wide swaths of cleared land slicing through fields and woods. Hundreds of trucks rumble down the winding country lanes.
Hydraulic fracturing, which uses huge amounts of water, sand, and chemicals to free up deposits of gas deep within the Marcellus Shale, has brought boom times to this struggling farm region. "Many local businesses who were on the verge of failing are now flourishing," says Jim Grimsley, a member of the pro-fracking group Dimock Proud, which claims to represent majority opinion in the township. "Local people who were making minimum wage are now doing well driving tanker trucks or working on the pipelines. I look at it as progress." People have been able to pay off their mortgages and buy new cars. Tony Ventello, executive director of the Progress Authority, an economic development agency serving Susquehanna and several other Pennsylvania counties, notes the tax base in neighboring Bradford County increased by $35 million over the last three years. (No data is available for Susquehanna County.)
Yet the county has paid a price. "Fracking has torn the community apart," says Julie Sautner, a resident of Dimock, which was the first stop featured in Gasland, Josh Fox's Oscar-nominated documentary, and is famous for being the township where gas drilling went wrong. In 2008, the wells of 18 families were polluted by chemicals and excessive levels of methane due to sloppy drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas. After getting sick, the Sautners haven't been able to use water from their well in the last two and a half years, but their predicament has earned little sympathy from pro-fracking groups. They and other litigants against the gas company have gotten flack for not settling with Cabot Oil & Gas. They've also been blamed for the state's moratorium on drilling by the gas company in a nine-mile-square area, which some residents believe has kept them from getting royalty payments on wells that otherwise would have been drilled.
"Two emotions dominate the stock market: fear and greed. They also drive natural gas," says Bill Fischer, a retired state trooper who sold his house in Silver Lake a year ago and moved to New York State. "You can't blame the farmers. They are as much a victim of this as anybody. If neighbor fights neighbor, they're not fighting the gas companies."
One problem is unequal distribution of the benefits. Early on, the land men's deceptions persuaded some property owners to lease their land for as little as $25 an acre; now lease signers are getting upward of $5,000. Royalty payments on produced gas also vary, depending on the rate negotiated, how much gas is coming out of the well, and what it's selling for. Usually the gas surges and then falls off pretty quickly: The Sautners were getting $2,700 a month three years ago but now receive only $300.
A study of the impact of Marcellus Shale drilling in Susquehanna County in 2010 by Penn State found that the millions of dollars spent by the industry—approximately $6.23 million per well on average, excluding lease payments—mostly went outside the area. Sales tax revenues did increase 10 percent, reflecting the increased purchase of new tractors, cars, and four-wheelers along with repairs to houses and barns. The county gained 162 new jobs, a 2 percent increase over the year before. Landowners received $92.1 million in leasing income, but more than 34 percent of this went to owners living outside the county. The study cautioned that the county should prepare for the day when the money and the gas will be gone.
Farming is one casualty: Susquehanna County's largest dairy farm recently divested itself of all its cows, and organic farmers are leaving the area. Brooklyn township resident Rebecca Roter said the owners of a 950-acre dairy farm near her are anxious about possible contamination of their water from nine recently fracked horizontal wells, with 19 more wells due to be drilled soon. Their son is training to be a diesel mechanic so he can work on the compressor stations.
Roter and activist Vera Scroggins say many people are afraid to complain when their well goes bad, especially if a family member works for the gas company. Businesses stay mum, so as not to lose customers. Roter says the elderly in particular are at risk. For example, an 80-year-old man in Bradford County has to heat bottled water on his stove to bathe. After his well was impacted a year ago, "he developed a red rash over his body from showering in the water," she says. "Two drilling companies have supplied him with bottled drinking water, but he has no water buffalo [a large outdoor storage container]. His two 90-plus-year-old neighbors are in the same situation."
She likens the area to a company town. The gas companies have poured money into the area, donating generously to local charities and institutions. Two gas wells drilled several hundred yards from a school have enriched the Elk Lake School District. A portion of the lease money and royalty payments are being spent on upgrading the career center to include courses related to the natural gas industry.
Billboards touting the benefits of the natural gas companies have monopolized the roadways ever since billboard company Park Outdoor Advertising declined to renew the contract for three antifracking billboards. Those who speak out risk getting tarred and feathered by pro-fracking groups and the industry. For example, photographs of Roter and three other activists were displayed at a recent employee safety meeting held by gas company WPX Energy and employees were warned to avoid them. Roter also discovered that Energy-in-Depth, an industry-supported group whose blogs target activists, filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain all e-mail correspondence between her and the Environmental Protection Agency.
"I find it unnerving to be profiled for protecting the air and water," says Roter. She doesn't blame the community for largely staying silent. "People are just afraid. They don't have the experience of advocating and are ill-equipped to deal with the rapid impact of industrialization. It's overwhelming."
In the township of Silver Lake, former resident Fischer, who says the area contains some of the state's most pristine lakes and streams, successfully petitioned the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to designate the entire watershed as an exceptional value, which prohibits discharge of pollutants into the waterways. Sixteen wells have nonetheless been permitted in the area, with drilling due to begin this summer. Several colleges will be monitoring the various environmental impacts, which gives resident Jen Gregory hope that the area won't be spoiled.
Gregory, her husband, and two young children moved a year ago from a nearby road to escape the truck traffic. They had considered moving to New York (she works for a regional planning organization in Binghamton) but decided to stay in Pennsylvania, where "at least we know the players."
"This is a war we are fighting. It's left to the public to fight, because Pennsylvania has given us no choice," says Gregory. "The tactics the gas companies follow are from the [military] service. We don't know what the long-term economic or environmental effects will be. I'm scared, just like the rest."