Fracking out your back door

Anybody who follows energy knows that the biggest story, by far, is fracking. The combination of the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling has opened up huge reserves of natural gas, oil, and other hydrocarbons in the U.S. It’s pushed the U.S. closer toward the once-fanciful notion of energy independence and is bringing massive investment as chemical companies seek to take advantage of cheap natural gas. It’s no wonder other countries are trying to hatch their own fracking revolution—and perhaps avoid the mistakes the U.S. has made. (More below the images.)

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Last month, I toured around western Pennsylvania, upstate New York, and eastern Ohio to learn about fracking. I was one of 18 journalists who traveled by bus to talk to industry people and local residents to see and hear what it looks like when fracking comes to town. The trip was organized by the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, a non-profit whose goal is to improve the knowledge of environmental journalists.

I found a complicated picture. There is no doubt that oil and gas exploitation is bringing much-welcomed money to these states and communities. The county of Carroll, Ohio, with a population of 30,000, was shriveling and the hotel was about to shut down before the shale revolution came to town. Now, our group couldn’t get a room because it’s filled with petro-workers, many of whom come from other oil and gas states.

I came to appreciate how ingrained oil and gas is to western Pennsylvania. The industry began there in 1859 when “Colonel” Drake hit a pocket of oil just a few hundred feet from Oil Creek, a place where Native Americans would collect the naturally occurring liquid for curative properties. Old-style pump jacks dot the landscape, from national forests to farmland. People–at least those who own land–love oil and gas there.

But as we all know, fracking is controversial. (See Gasland and many more movies.) There are worries that poorly cemented, or “cased,” wells can cause methane to seep into water supplies. Each frack job uses five to eight million gallons of water and the water that comes back carries the chemicals, aka fracking fluids, along with trace minerals, including heavy metals and radioactive radium. And because drilling is happening in rural areas, it can transform quiet towns with a rural character into industrial areas, with heavy truck traffic and the noise and air pollution of heavy industry. Another issue is disposal of waste water in injection wells, which has been linked to tremors and earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma.

The natural gas bonanza has shifted power plants from coal to natural gas, reducing U.S. emissions over the past five years. But one can’t wonder about the tradeoffs and whether regulations can keep pace with this drilling boom. More fundamentally, the entire trip reminded me of how attached we are to our fossil fuels. This slideshow of photos from my trip will give you a feel for what fracking looks like to the people above the Marcellus and Utica shales.

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