A punctured landscape

by Leonie Düngefeld

Unter der Erde (Ausgabe I/2022)


The Olympus company drills for natural gas under this cemetery near Harrison City in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Photo: Leonie Düngefeld

In the southwestern corner of the US state of Pennsylvania, the scene is like something out of a storybook. Ponies and cows graze in lush meadows, the sunshine paints the hilltops in splashes of red and yellow and the sound of crickets chirruping pulses through the air. It's almost autumn but most of the trees are still green and it remains remarkably warm. If you happen to be driving a car on Washington County's undulating country roads, you have to watch out for the brown chipmunks that dash over the road every few meters.

Lois Bower-Bjornson, a petite woman with a surprisingly deep voice, sits behind the steering wheel in her bulky Chrysler van. But she's not looking at the road. Instead she searches left and right. “Back there at the drill site, there was a light on last night. That's where they were working,” she says, waving into the distance. “And there, behind that huge noise barrier, that's where the tank farm will be. That's where they'll get the water for drilling.”

Bower-Bjornson is actually a dance teacher but she offers regular “Frackland Tours” around her community and puts politicians, journalists or students in touch with affected local people. “Otherwise no one would believe us about what's happening here,” she explains. She's dressed in sports clothing because she just hopped into her car quickly. A neighbour had called to tell her that trucks from the fracking companies were on the road in their area again.

“You need up to 4,000 truck journeys per drilling well for the fracking process, Bower-Bjornson explains. Most of those go right past the locals' front doors on country roads that are not made to handle the trucks‘ weight.”

There is nowhere else in this state where as much drilling for gas takes place as in this idyllic corner. There are 20 active fracking sites here – islands of metal, full of pipes, cranes and derricks - within an 8-kiliomter radius of Bower-Bjornson's home. And that's the least of it. Delivery trucks come and go, there is accommodation for the workers, storage facilities guarded by heavy steel fences and compressor stations for the gas as well as gas pipelines. Bower-Bjornson takes the bend a little too fast but is rewarded by what she's been looking for. Ahead are three huge, grey tankers, kicking up clouds of brown dust. 

“There you go, there they are,” she says. Each fracking site requires up to 4,000 truck trips and these behemoths often pass right past locals' front doors. The country roads are not made for their weight, Bower-Bjornson says. As to prove her point, just before the next township there's a hole in the road, where the tarmac has come off and slid down its embankment. 

About two kilometres below this road, lies the reason for the commotion that's going on above the surface. The Marcellus Formation, also known as the Marcellus Shale, is a tranche of shale rock that runs through several states in the eastern US. It holds one of the largest natural gas deposits in the world. Over millions of years, the remains of animal and plant matter has been heated and compressed into hydrocarbons. Some of these have travelled into higher rock layers and can be extracted from the ground as natural gas or crude oil. To do this involves drilling vertically into the earth, a conventional extraction method that’s been used for more than 150 years.

“When the light from the works began shining directly into her bedroom at night and her children's noses started to burn from a constant and lingering industrial smell, she decided to fight back.” 

The shale in the Marcellus Formation is particularly dense though, which means some of the trapped gas can't make its way upward. It's trapped in the rock. So to access this gas, industry uses a process called hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” for short. The technique involves drilling horizontally into the shale and injecting a mixture of water, sand and various chemicals into the rock. This creates pressure in the rock and breaks it up, allowing access to the gas. 

Energy companies had been tinkering around with the perfect recipe for the liquid cocktail that is injected for decades. Governments supported it financially. In the early 2000s, there was a breakthrough, which, in turn, revived the fortunes of the oil and gas industry in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Now, thanks partially to fracking, Pennsylvania is the largest producer of natural gas in the US, after Texas. However the disadvantage of fracking is that it's not particularly productive in any single well. This is why multiple wells need to be bored at the same time. 

“They arrived in swarms,” Bower-Bjornson recalls. Two or three times a week, gas industry representatives came knocking on her door. “They wanted to do geological testing on our properties, to lease our land and to invite us to meet with the companies,” she said. Like so many of her neighbours, at first she thought nothing of it. But when the light from the works began shining directly into her bedroom at night and her children's noses started to burn from a constant and lingering industrial smell, she decided to fight back. Today Bower-Bjornson is involved in a number of non-governmental organisations who are opposed to the fracking companies that seem to have taken over their whole region. “I get pretty angry when I see injustice,” she explains. “And I can't stand lies.”

The companies fracking in western Pennsylvania have promised the community both jobs and money. But as it turns out, few locals here know anyone working on the fracking sites. Most of those people seem to come from elsewhere and they don't stay very long. Instead companies with names like EQT, Olympus or Range Resources, donate schoolbags for children, organise farmers' markets or support veterans. They call it “corporate giving” and display videos of joyful residents on their websites. However critics like Bower-Bjornson point out that the companies are infiltrating the communities, making them dependent.

“Fracking is an efficient way to produce energy, Douglas Chew agrees, but only in unpopulated areas or where the land is already being used for industrial purposes.” 

Fracking is a divisive subject here. A survey undertaken during the US’ 2020 presidential election found that around half of the population in Pennsylvania opposed fracking, while the other half supported it. A lot of people here make money from it. That division over fracking reflects the broader political divisions in this country: Pennsylvania is a swing state and splits fairly evenly Republican and Democrat. In 2016, Donald Trump won the presidential vote here by just 0.7 percent. In 2020, Joe Biden, won it with just 1.2 percent of the vote.

An hour’s drive northeast, in neighbouring Westmoreland County. It’s Tuesday morning and the county’s administrator, Douglas Chew, a member of the Republican party, folds his large hands together, as he sits at the long conference table in the headquarters of the organisation, Protect PT. The organisation describes itself as “a citizen’s group working to ensure the health and safety, security, and quality of life from the effects of unconventional gas development”.

Chew wears a burgundy jacket over his well-fed belly and you can smell his expensive cologne through the masks that everyone is wearing because of the pandemic. Chew is here for some advice. He’s helping to decide whether the county should let a company drill under land it owns. The county could earn good money if they agree. “I’m a lot more environmentally conscious than a lot of my party colleagues,” he concedes, recalling a childhood spent on a farm in the countryside. He is looking for a middle ground, he says. Fracking is an efficient way to produce energy, he agrees, but only in unpopulated areas or where the land is already being used for industrial purposes. 

Gillian Graber, Protect PT’s director, suggests that Chew use an online tool to help figure out population density. “It's about the number of people impacted,” she explains. “Because it’s obvious there are going to be impacts on the environment.” Research has shown that it’s not just the chemicals pumped into the ground during the fracking process that can cause environmental damage and pollute water sources. A new study recently indicated that a lot more methane is leaking from oil and gas drilling than previously thought. Methane is harmful to the environment and a significant cause of global warming. 

In November last year at COP 26, the UN's Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, the US announced that it would work on major reductions to methane emissions. According to the Biden administration, the US is supposed to be carbon neutral by 2050. Time is slipping away. 

“People have been talking about the environment since he was a kid, Chew says, but most people around here are more worried about low petrol prices.”

Early the next morning, Chew is ordering eggs, bacon and pancakes in a roadside diner. The older waitress calls him “honey”. He eats here often. “I don't want to sound cynical,” he says, “but I don’t think that Americans will ever make the climate a priority.” People have been talking about the environment since he was a kid, the 52-year-old explains, and back then there was hardly any gas being produced here at all. Most people around here are more worried about low petrol prices. After all, they use it for heating or to keep their cars going, something that is necessary for anybody living in the countryside. 

As Chew nibbles on his bacon, he tries to explain why the Republican party remains committed to fracking. “Republicans want us [Americans] to use our own resources,” he argues. “They don't want to be dependent on other countries that might suddenly decide not to sell us anything.” 

Since the early 2000s, US gas and oil imports have decreased steadily, while the country has exported more. The country is indeed becoming less dependent on oil producers in the Middle East and Africa. And the US' Energy Information Administration, or EIA, expects the country's oil and gas exports to continue to grow as demand from Asian countries rises. 

In many ways, natural gas – often seen as the most climate-friendly fossil fuel – will continue to be seen as a transitional solution, while the world converts to renewables like wind, solar or hydrogen power. Western Pennsylvania will also need a large amount of natural gas in the future. The Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex is being built on the banks of the Ohio river and Shell will soon be producing 1.6 million tons of plastic here annually, all from fracked gas out of this region.

Protect PT boss, Gillian Graber, stands next to a gravestone and observes the crane that is dipping an arm behind the nearby noise-protection barrier. The roar of machines can still be heard even though she is several hundred meters away. The company Olympus – it names its various drilling sites after Greek gods – is prospecting for gas beneath a cemetery. It's been three months and apparently the left over materials here are going to be shipped away by trucks shortly. 

“Methane has been detected in the groundwater at the Marcellus Formation and so has radioactive contamination. People are more frequently reporting aggressive cancers.”

Graber and her colleagues at Protect PT want to disseminate what the consequences of this drilling might be for the general population. The environmental argument doesn't work here, she says. In the end, Graber believes that the government will achieve its climate goals with tricks like carbon capture, a method of storing carbon dioxide underground.

So Graber's argument against fracking is different: It's about public health. ”This industry contributes to many common diseases in the country,” Graber says. “If we shift our focus to that, then the fossil fuel industry will die its own natural death,” she suggests. Methane has been detected in the groundwater at the Marcellus Formation and so has radioactive contamination. People are more frequently reporting aggressive cancers, respiratory problems and children born with disabilities. Many studies show a link between industry emissions and health.

Protect PT tries to educate residents here how to gather evidence on this by, for example, measuring air pollution. Clean air and clean water are basic rights, Graber points out. Then she brings out pictures of a drilling station right next to her community's water reservoir and talks about the accidents that happen all the time around the pipelines. Then, unexpectedly, she has tears glistening in her eyes. “I'm doing this for my children,” Graber explains, smiling apologetically. “I just want them to be able to breathe clean air in the future.”

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