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Under the Surface: Fracking…, by Tom Wilber

May 29, 2012

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale by Tom Wilber.Cornell Univ Pr (2012), Hardcover, 272 pages

Wilber, a journalist for seventeen years with the Binghamton (NY) Press & Sun-Bulletin, has written an account of the impact of natural gas fracking in the Marcellus Shale of New York and Pennsylvania. [Fracking has also occurred in many other states including Texas,  Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Colorado,  with some of the same problems appearing.] Focusing mostly on the stories of individuals, he explores the science of fracking, the actions of the landmen who come offering leases, and the arrogance of the oil companies when confronted about problems such as torn up roads and exploding wells. He also discusses the effects of fracking on land owners and communities, the differing regulatory response of Pennsylvania and New York and the conflicting interests of different industries about creating new markets for natural gas.

Wilber’s focus on individuals makes his story easy to read and follow, and he presents different sides of most of the issues.  He  describes people who become millionaires from lease money, but then find themselves dealing with their property being covered with tens of millions of gallons of chemically laden brine water. Others found they could end up with an explosion in their barns, or even their houses. Some discovered that a damaged well could mean disruption of their property, but no additional money from production. Many found their water wells contaminated.

Wilber describes the effect of these sorts of problems on neighbors, on communities, and on state regulatory agencies. Focusing on the community of Dimock , Pennsylvania, he details the problems of organizing to get a better treatment from the oil companies.  People were frustrated by oil companies, who frequently denied that they had caused a well to be contaminated, told by the state to contact the industry, and told by the industry that it was “all regulated”. In response to this type of run-around, members of the community organized to pressure the state to regulate the industry better. Some residents were angered by the community’s actions, because it slowed down their hopes of cashing in on the boom. Tensions also emerged between those who trusted that the filtration systems furnished by industry would clean up their polluted wells, and those who didn’t trust them and wanted the comanies to be required to build a pipeline  bring in clean water.

Partly in response to the problems in Pennsylvania, New York declared a moratorium on fracking until a review of the problems it created and a regulatory response was prepared. While many welcomed the moratorium and hoped for strong regulations, if not an outright ban, others living close to the Pennsylvania line resented the delays that they felt were costing them money. Wilber explains many of the issues in New York, focusing most on the fact that Syracuse and New York City get their drinking water from sources that could be effected by drilling.

Wilbur’s book is not a analytical survey of what fracking is, how it should be regulated, or if it should be totally banned. His journalistic training causes him to follow the story, rather than to analyze it in depth. It suffers from the problem of any book dealing with a current topic,  in that it has to stop its story at some point.

I recommend the Under the Suface to those who are new to the issue of fracking and want to understand its complexity.  I read it on my Nook as a review copy from Netgalley.

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