Welcome to Frackville

Photo by Kim Sorvig
Photo by Kim Sorvig


Shale drilling booms, like the Marcellus craze in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, sacrifice living landscapes in to volatile bets about what lies below.

By Kim Sorvig

Five and a half years ago, I learned we might lose our home to oil drilling. Strangers could suddenly be in control of our land, scraping, drilling, fracturing bedrock, leaving the wastes—with no legal responsibility to us. What would happen to the local economy, to services everyone takes for granted, in the Wild West atmosphere of an oil or gas “play,” when boomtown populations double overnight? So began my forced education about petroleum engineering.

The high desert is where my wife and I have always wanted to live, a landscape of immense silent spaces, mesas, and astonishing clouds. We live just south of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and call our home The Underground. It’s passive solar, with a straw-bale addition that I built singlehandedly.

In October 2007, I attended a meeting held by a “wildcat” oil company—exploratory drillers who sell production rights to others. They had leased drilling rights beneath much of the Galisteo Basin, our watershed. All the leasing deals had been done in secret before the drillers announced their intentions at this meeting.

I assumed we must have some legal protections, but that was wishful thinking. They would simply cut our fence and bulldoze a several-acre “pad.” We’d get 30 days’ warning and nonbinding negotiations about where, not whether, to drill. The pad could be in the backyard; we’d get no compensation. We wouldn’t lose our home, technically. It would merely become unlivable and unsalable. Our home is our retirement plan, a situation many neighbors share.

The wildcatter’s CEO gave a slick presentation—he showed wellheads like hydrants amid thriving grasslands; not a tank, condenser, pipeline, or wastewater pond in sight. “Nice Photoshop,” someone yelled. Homeowners who made impassioned pleas were condescendingly reminded about civility and time limits.

Every landscape professional has been to dozens of these dog and pony show meetings. This time, it was personal.

For several months a stunned community tried to organize. I lay awake nights in panic.


Spring 2012: I settle into my seat as a commercial flight, burning jet fuel a gallon per second, takes off from Albuquerque for the East Coast. I’m going to see what several Pennsylvania landscape architects have described as a feeding frenzy. Those were their polite comments about the Marcellus Shale gas boom.

The plane skirts Texas, where the landscape looks like a circuit board. Whitish squares are joined by drunken dirt roads, the legacy of a century of drilling. The industry calls such oil fields “conventional.” Conventional wells are little mosquitoes that stab straight down into liquid pockets of petroleum, scattered above small reservoirs or marching along on a grid, one every few acres. They swarm across the landscape without regard for anything on the surface.

A couple of million oil and gas wells have been drilled in the United States since the 1950s; there are about 825,000 of them currently producing, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. But conventional reservoirs are becoming rarer, pumped out, capped, or abandoned. Conventional production has peaked, and demand keeps rising.

To survive, the petroleum industry is betting heavily on “unconventional” reservoirs, shales and sands from which oil or gas can’t just be pumped. Imagine sponges soaked in petroleum, then hardened. Tar sands are boiled to release crude oil. Shales must be “fracked” (hydraulically fractured) by pumping huge volumes of water and chemicals under extreme pressure to crack bedrock so its riches flow. There was even one attempt to nuke petroleum loose, with radioactive results.

Unconventional reserves, many believe, will dwarf conventional ones. The International Energy Agency predicted in 2009 that U.S. shale gas may be triple the nation’s conventional total. In some played-out conventional fields, fracking old wells may release half again their former production. Fracking is profitable, enough to perpetuate our fossil-fuel addiction, enough to deny fracking’s documented risks.

As the plane descends eastward, I see landscapes created by unconventional drilling—and we’re not in Texas anymore. Instead of tiny pale pimples, glowing 10-acre pits gouge forests and farmland, veined by raw dirt roads and pipeline scars. Welcome to the Marcellus Gas Play.


Proponents of fracking say there is no fossil-fuel future without it. Fracking, they often claim, uses only sand and water safe enough to drink. Yet in 2005, Congress dubbed the ingredients of fracking fluid “proprietary” and exempt from the Clean Water Act and five other major federal laws; thanks to Dick Cheney’s involvement, this has been called the Halliburton Loophole. Sampled fracking wastes contain more than 600 identifiable chemicals. Hundreds are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors (which interfere with hormones regulating most living functions: see http://www.endocrinedisruption.com).

In 2008, just 180 miles west of Capitol Hill, fluid dumped after fracking killed a half-acre of the Fernow Experimental Forest in Parsons, West Virginia, a U.S. Forest Service research station. The event made national news as “a spill,” but this was no accident. The fluid had been sprayed deliberately, a method of waste disposal (legal in West Virginia) called “land application.” Ground cover died on contact. Trees dropped leaves immediately; more than half of them died within two years.

I phoned a Fernow research scientist, who apologized: All interviews require requests in writing. A Forest Service communications officer called and wanted my “angle” in advance. Then out of the blue a group named PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) contacted LAM’s editorial office to warn that “scientists slated to be interviewed have been given scripted responses; see Freedom of Information documents at peer.org/docs/usda.” I arranged an interview despite the bureaucratic paranoia.

Tom Schuler, a research forester, and Mary Beth Adams, a research soil scientist, meet me at the Fernow office, outside Parsons, a small timbering community. Each has numerous publications on forest management, including analysis of the fracking-fluid release.

Since the 1940s, they tell me, USFS has been collecting irreplaceable long-term management data in Fernow Forest. The information is critical to the agency, the timber industry, and anyone managing or designing forested sites.

When the forest was purchased by USFS in 1915, mineral rights beneath it were kept in private hands, a situation called “split estate” that gives mineral owners “dominance” over surface interests. In 2005, a gas company, having leased rights, proposed to drill an exploratory well—smack in the middle of Fernow’s “reference watershed,” the baseline parcel for comparing results from experimental forest plots. The Forest Service, with help from the state, persuaded the driller not to destroy the reference watershed.

In 2007, the driller returned, targeting a different forest “compartment” near the neighboring Otter Creek Wilderness. In this location, drilling would punch through limestone bat caves linked to groundwater. Two bat species at Fernow are endangered.

Permits were rapidly granted, despite scientific concern; PEER says USFS lawyers interpreted split estate to mean the agency had no say over drilling. But the law has gray areas: Mineral owners have only “reasonable” access to the surface. After the incident, senior USDA legal staff ruled that the Forest Service did indeed have rights. (Similar federal rights are being litigated, possibly explaining USFS’s touchiness about reporters.)

Schuler and Adams see some positive results: The event was a wake-up call, motivating overdue research. Fernow’s parent agency (the USFS Northern Research Station) cosponsored a forum with Penn State University in April 2012 on drilling impacts in forested landscapes (search “Goddard Forum” for papers online). Schuler and Adams carefully point out that their Fernow study may not apply everywhere. But in the noticeable absence of research about drilling impacts, even one case makes it clear that fracking fluid can kill.

The Fernow forest was in bloom as I left. Along a steep creek bed, dogwoods caught the sun. As I drove away, I wondered: If the might of the federal government, backed by powerful timber interests, can’t use endangered species laws to protect a research site next to a wilderness, can anything?

A few days later, I share this question with a knowledgeable landscape architect. “It is,” he says seriously, “very much a lord-help-the-rest-of-us situation.”


North of Pittsburgh, at the Zelienople airport, Steve White, a pilot, fuels up to fly me over the surrounding counties. A pilot in a black oil company helicopter waits impatiently for us to finish.

White’s real job is remodeling. He tracks drilling, he says, for his kids’ sake. He knows where fracking ponds are up against someone’s back door, where “restored” pads have slipped down hillsides, where temporary pipelines have leaked. Many projects go in without permits, he says.

Over the plane’s headset, White points out new pipelines and rail easements (bought back from rail–trail associations) that will transport methane, alias “natural gas,” a greenhouse gas 20 times as potent as CO2. Methane may be compressed or liquefied for shipment (it is increasingly sold overseas); it may also be “cracked” into manufacturing materials: propane, hexane, ethane, butane, and, White adds morbidly, ptomaine.

The ground is pockmarked with pads and pits, the sky aflame with waste gas flaring from tall stacks, visible for miles. “I’ve been to public meetings where drillers say they don’t want to flare; they’d rather be more green,” White says. But new wells are still flared for the first few weeks, when gas may be contaminated. Lack of pipeline and storage capacity may also result in burn-offs. Below us, a flare towers directly over a high-school running track.

We fly over homes wedged between giant orange wastewater ponds. Dwarf conifers neatly surround one well pad in a futile attempt at landscape architecture. White knows a fellow, his home surrounded by wells, who hedged himself in to avoid seeing what had befallen his landscape. “That going to be the new trend?” he shouts, pointing.

“What worries me,” White says after landing, “is that drilling creates such a divide between winners and losers. If you own your rights and get wealthy leasing them, when the land gets unhealthy, you take the money and leave. If you didn’t own rights, or leased them cheap at the first offer, you’re stuck with the damage, with no money, no infrastructure, and no economy when it goes bust.” Who would even buy here, he wonders aloud, let alone fix up a house, not knowing when and where drilling will start next?

As I drive away from Zelienople, I’m thinking how Norway’s government invests North Sea Oil money in anticipation of the bust, something Pennsylvania isn’t doing. I try not to imagine the future facing Steve White’s kids.


Bridgeville, Pennsylvania: White’s friend Bob Donnan meets me in a white F-Series pickup. A big, amiable man, face neatly wreathed in a thick white beard, he’s run Donnan Landscape Services for 30 years, somehow finding time to create a 560-page website. Along with concise horticulture videos, he’s posted excellent analysis and photos of Marcellus Shale drilling (www.donnan.com/Press-Club-Event.htm).

As Pittsburgh’s southern margins fray into rural landscapes, Donnan tells me of friends and neighbors, struggling with dust, methane fumes, heavy trucks, and contaminated water. “This was like Shangri-la back in here,” he says. “Can you imagine?”

We pull up at three big boxy machines and some tanks—a gas compressor station. Donnan was here the night that Shale-Test, a nonprofit group that works on environmental justice issues, took infrared video of fumes vented from these tanks (www.shaletest.org).

“We get down to my buddy’s house,” Donnan says, pointing to a home in the distance, “and one guy has a methane detector. About a third of a mile from the compressors, it goes off.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did tests, but by federal law, individual compressors are considered “point sources.” As long as each unit doesn’t exceed its emissions limit, the cumulative multiple-unit emissions are legal.

“So don’t light any matches up here,” Donnan says. He’s serious.

A year ago, Donnan and his neighbors helped rescue the Monongahela River from fracking flowback (used fracking fluid), which drillers were dumping into wastewater plants. Flowback is extremely salty; when mixed with chlorinated municipal water, it forms trihalomethanes, a class of carcinogenic chemicals. Ill-treated effluent went into rivers, causing fish kills, one of which was 35 miles long. Public awareness, not DEP enforcement, ended the dumping.

Confronting groundwater contamination is harder. “You have to run an expensive battery of tests because you don’t know what chemicals might be there,” Donnan says, referring to the Halliburton Loophole. No one is allowed to know what has been put down a Pennsylvania well, not even firemen or ambulance drivers. The loophole is slick: Whatever is found, it can’t be proved to come from a formula that’s secret.

“Even doctors,” Donnan exclaims. “Doctors can get information to treat a patient, but they’re gagged. They can’t disclose it to help another patient or the general public.”

Owners of contaminated water wells are frequently gagged, too. If a well is found to be contaminated, the driller settles, denying liability and giving contamination a standard spin. Exploding wells and flaming faucets, the industry asserts, are owing to surface gas that has always been there.

“Over there is Darrell Smitsky’s,” Donnan gestures. “People used to drive miles to get Smitsky’s well water, it was so darn good. But they had a Marcellus well that wouldn’t frack, near an abandoned old gas well, never been plugged.”

I’d been reading The End of Country, Seamus McGraw’s excellent memoir of drilling in his hometown, Dimock, Pennsylvania, the site of an exploding water well. The DEP’s official finding blamed gas from surface deposits, exactly as drillers had said. But a fracking rig had disturbed those deposits when it got stuck in gravel. DEP held those drillers responsible.

Here at Smitsky’s, after the bad frack, well water turned chocolate brown; five goats became paralyzed; fish in a decorative pond died after turning translucent; pond plants shriveled. Showering caused rashes. The same excuses were proffered. Surface gas, the old well, even jealousy were blamed: If the Smitskys’ lease paid as well as the neighbors’ had, they wouldn’t be complaining.

Donnan’s voice hints at controlled anger. “People say, it’s just anecdotal evidence. Well, it may be, but these are good, honest people with no reason to lie.”


You want to stop in on my buddy Hoss?” Donnan suggests. Hoss Godwin, a nurseryman, had trouble with “cowboy” drillers early on but now receives gas royalties from 17 sites, plus pipeline easements.

“The gas,” Godwin says up front, “has kept our nursery expanding. Nationwide, there’s nurseries going out of business left and right. We’re doing lots of business with the gas companies, selling plants to go around compressor sites, as townships regulate more site restoration.”

Several gas pipelines cross his nursery fields, taking many acres out of production. Godwin, who is clearly a sharp negotiator, gleefully recounts recouping his lost revenue. “I was paid for the nursery stock, which we had the right to dig. It was still mine. We sold them a bunch of that stuff after they had basically paid for it.” The drillers passed the shrubs out for free in surrounding towns.

Drilling and pipeline rights are separate, and Godwin’s pipeline leases include cash penalties for leaving trenches open too long, or for not removing rocks before backfilling. “Lime, fertilizer, grass seed, all of that I’m controlling. I don’t want them bringing in wild weeds out of Indiana. All that needs to go into pipeline agreements. What will we lose to shortages? How long is it going to take to get the soil back into condition? All legitimate questions. You look at some of these pipelines, not so much around here, some of that’s never going to return to normal.”

Despite a grower’s awareness of potential damage, Godwin says that drillers are generally good about trying to work with people. “Originally there were a lot of cowboys. Those days are done. I don’t know that we need more monitoring, more regulations. Educated people will do more than government any time.”

Donnan sees it differently. “They came in and knew they could be cowboys, got away with it, saved money. Then people caught up with them.…”

What bothers Godwin are the big trucks on the roads at school bus time; he’d accept regulation on that. But damage to public roads, from an estimated thousand heavy truck trips per well? “Yeah, they tore up lots of roads,” Godwin says. “But I could show you township roads that were nothing more than horse trails; you could drive a Ferrari down them now.” I can’t help recalling miles of badly patched roads, futile “No Heavy Rig Parking” signs, young company men driving gigantic trucks at testosterone speeds. I’d watched them thunder through tiny Prosperity, Pennsylvania, in rain so blinding I’d pulled to the curb.

“Gas drilling,” Godwin continues, “has been a big boon to this area. My thing to these people who are whooping and hollering,” he says, leering at Donnan, “is I wanna shut your gas off if you wanna keep bitching…”

“… about my tap water being contaminated,” Donnan finishes. They both laugh.

Donnan shows me a few more sites, his frustration palpable: unhealthy homes, abuse of permit and tax laws, dump-if-you-can mentality, federal subsidies to an industry making record profits. Being attacked for objecting clearly rankles. “That old thing about turning your gas off,” Donnan snorts as we head back. “Just because you heat with gas doesn’t mean you have to accept them polluting your tap water.”


“West Virginians,” says Charlie Yuill, ASLA, “are accustomed to other people doing things on the land and passing the costs over to us.” He gestures toward a GIS screen dotted with drilling locations. Yuill heads West Virginia University’s landscape architecture and environmental design program, researching large-scale issues at its Natural Resource Analysis Center.

“Many communities are pretty unprepared for this catastrophe,” he continues. “Counties have planning but don’t employ professional planners—fiscal cash-flow, market stuff, but they couldn’t physical-plan their way out of a bag.” State laws about drilling, he says, are “pretty decent at the site scale, but there’s no cumulative impact analysis. In mining, there is.” Drilling’s impact is considered one well at a time, because that’s how permits are administered.

“Everybody thinks the evil is these well pads. But pads have standard mitigation; along major pipelines it isn’t nearly as good. They’ll herbicide the easements, remove any woody vegetation. I’ve seen them go up and down 40-degree slopes. Pipelines and roads are probably five to 10 times as much acreage as the drilling pads. There’s an amazing amount of landscape fragmentation.”

Yuill strongly advocates landscape planning and restoration as a career for graduates. He tells of a grad grumbling, “All I’m doing is surface water, topographic redesign, constructed wetlands, natural stream restoration, and revegetation; that was all I could find.” Yuill shakes his head. “They’re paying you $65K, out of school, and you’re apologizing because you’re not doing some awesome pool complex?”

Later that day I talk with several of Yuill’s recent landscape architecture graduates who work as mappers for Marcellus drillers. Chris Glover and Tim Husson work out of a motel room (not uncommon where worker influx overwhelms rental space), with Dylan McInturff, a geography and political science major. John Wright, another of Yuill’s graduates, works across the Ohio line.

“I graduated right when the economy hit the fan,” Glover says. “No job prospects; one of my geography professors forwarded an e-mail, a guy looking for mappers.” Husson, graduating earlier, got three years in a multidisciplinary firm before development fizzled. Wright “walked in and was offered a job without signing anything”: $200 a day, expenses, no benefits. (That’s $50K a year; ASLA’s latest survey shows $46K, with benefits, as the entry-level average.)

They work for an information broker. Several brokers serve each Marcellus driller. “Technically, we’re self-employed, contracted to a company that’s contracted to another company,” Husson says. Subcontracting—of everything, not just mapping—appears to be standard in the drilling business. Yuill notes that “Halliburton trucks are labeled Allied Oil and Gas Services or things like that, to take it down a notch. They want to look local.” Wright says subcontracting allows the gasmen “to keep their hands out of liability issues.” He, however, was required “to have a million dollars of insurance on my car, out of my pocket.”

“We’re creating databases,” Glover explains. “Who owns the surface, who owns minerals under these tracts, if there’s an active well, getting plats, showing where different companies have leases. I’ve got probably 50 to 60 projects, 10 to 20 maps each week.”

All of them consider their landscape architecture backgrounds advantageous. “We have an upper hand in knowing how to present a map, from our LA classes,” Husson says. But the land focus can be painful. Wright recalls walking a proposed pipeline with an ecologist and a surveyor. They recommended staying out of a wetland but were told, “Just pay the fine.” “That was a tough day,” Wright says. So was being told to show up at public meetings and speak in favor of drilling—or be fired.

They miss creative design but point out that many first jobs are just digitizing. Wright recently completed an environment and community master’s program and hopes to help communities plan better. Husson sees a related opportunity: “A little further education, get into reclamation of well pad sites.”

None of these recent graduates is naive about drilling’s downside. (Three of them repeat the exploding-faucets-occur-naturally line, as though memorized.) But, like Hoss Godwin, they believe in safe drilling, and in people’s ability to protect their interests, especially using social media.

Glover says that West Virginia University used to be lucky to keep 10 percent of its graduates in the state, but drilling has created opportunities. “Most of us are from here, born and raised,” he says. “If any of us thought it was really going to degrade quality of life, we wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”


It’s a long drive from Pittsburgh to Scranton. I make it longer by hunting down some Pennsylvania towns with names like Energy, Independence, and Good Intent—hard to find, but the road to it is paved (with petroleum products). A loop north takes me through Titusville, site of the first commercial oil well, 1859. Population boomed; deforestation accompanied drilling; floods washed oil field equipment downstream; petroleum distillates caught fire, killing 60. After an 1890s bust, nearby Enterprise reverted to rural life. Pithole City became a ghost town. Oil City remains glutted with grand real estate. When I get there, Marcellus drilling hasn’t arrived yet, but one resident tells me, “Everybody’s down at the courthouse.”

“Did you come through Allegheny National Forest?” Tom McLane, ASLA, asks me when I arrive at McLane Associates in Scranton. Like most landscape people I’ve talked to, he considers Allegheny drilling a tragedy and an omen. “In my younger days,” he says in his quick, emphatic voice, “I bicycled Highway 6,” a National Scenic Route. “Now you see pad after pad.”

McLane, an adjunct professor of wetlands ecology at Scranton’s Keystone College, organized a 2011 ASLA panel on getting Marcellus work. Drilling and fracking are bringing “big changes in the landscape,” he says. “It’s something we have almost nothing to do with, yet that’s our business.”

When mortgages tanked, drilling (which McLane calls “predatory”) moved in on the weakened economy. “We as landscape architects were sitting in the shadow of this gas field, saying, where’s our role?” As he reminded the ASLA panel’s 300 attendees, every well, compressor, and pipeline has an impact on stormwater, which Pennsylvania landscape architects are licensed to manage.

McLane, a water gardener at heart, has taken his own advice and developed a reputation for gas-related stormwater plans and water sampling. “We’ve dealt with alignment of pipelines, well pads, wetlands delineation,” he says. “Ancillary” developments—facilities serving gas field workers—also provide projects.

It’s an arena where “everybody is so suspicious, with such hatred of regulatory agencies,” McLane says. “Pennsylvania was caught so off guard by this.” Early in the boom, one planner told him, “I’ve never seen anything like this. You dare not stand in the way; I’d be out of my job.”

The drillers’ strategy was to beat regulation, McLane says, to take the low-hanging fruit, and leave. “The clamor for independence from foreign oil, that’s crap. It’s all about the world market, all speculation.” The boom has actually depressed prices so much that drilling has slowed.

I ask him about subcontracting as camouflage. “Yeah, spreading out that liability,” he agrees, “it’s easy to blame a sub. The guy at the top just cares that it’s drilled and operating, and ‘don’t draw any attention to me.’ It’s a shell game.”

McLane worries about broad economic impacts of both boom and bust. Local entrepreneurs who once sold bluestone now do road base; ex-woodworkers lease trucks. They’re surviving in the present, but skills and value-added products are leaving the local economy.

The conversation returns to the Alleghenies. “They’re drilling the only pristine areas of the state that weren’t affected by previous waves of resource extraction.” McLane shakes his head. “We’ve been screwed by railroads. We’ve been screwed by coal. Now we’ve been screwed by gas.

“I’ve always been a proponent of natural gas,” McLane says, like many thoughtful environmentalists. “Of all the bad things in the energy market, natural gas is not the worst. It’s just the fact that it’s a secret society.”


Our friends in government don’t value the land surface,” says Neil Korostoff, ASLA, an associate professor of landscape architecture at Penn State. “They’re granting permits for one well every 10 acres all over. We’re going to be punctured like paper hit by birdshot.”

Korostoff (who was my classmate under Ian McHarg) is a longtime board member of the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, which distributes grants to help communities affected by drilling. One result is http://www.fractracker.org, which maps shale formations, wells, complaints, and other information.

“It’s the same story,” Korostoff reflects. “One wave of resource extraction after another passes through the same shattered communities, the same dispirited regions. Little ability to fight back, great susceptibility to promises. They’re not even getting work out of it. The skilled labor crews are from Texas and Oklahoma. There’s a minor boom in hotels and diners in old coal communities, but no lasting positive impact.”

Fracking worries—from the public and regulators alike—seem focused on subsurface concerns such as groundwater, or earthquakes triggered by fracking. Surface dangers may be larger: the consumption of scarce water and the disposal of fracking fluid. Korostoff points out that the Marcellus layer (unlike other shales) lies nearly a mile deep, where fracking poses limited risks to groundwater. “Land surface impacts should involve landscape architects, but we’re not asked to participate.”

The state permit is just a checklist, Korostoff says. “Any impact on water? Just check No. Same for cultural impacts. If there was real enforcement, there would be a market for my services to analyze and mitigate impacts.” Instead, the 2012 Pennsylvania legislature outlawed the use of local zoning to limit drilling’s surface impacts. “Act 13,” the same law that gags doctors, was challenged by a coalition of municipal officials, doctors, and environmentalists; the case is stuck in the state supreme court, where a judge’s resignation for corruption appears to give the governor an excuse to appoint a fracking-friendly replacement.

This is why, Korostoff says grimly, in Pennsylvania DEP stands for Don’t Expect Protection.


Melinda McMillan is another designer–activist. Educated in Pennsylvania, she initially saw drilling as a local concern, but her October 2011 article on fracking (www.landscapeurbanism.com) includes a map of the lower 48 states, 28 showing actual or predicted shale plays.

“I had to start a conversation,” McMillan says, “through writing, in my design circles, by social media.” Design colleagues, she says, are “surprised they hadn’t heard about it. This is my field; I should know.”

Starting a conversation is more than just spreading information. “Unless something brings the issue to your attention, it doesn’t exist,” says McMillan. Donnan recalls having trouble getting three people to a meeting about Marcellus drilling. “Conversations” are snowballing, however; groups like the Oil and Gas Accountability Project and 350.org are ramping up efforts, and new, often celebrity-led protests are forming.

With attention has come resistance. There’s currently an intense public relations campaign in favor of fossil fuels. The infamously corporate ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) and the Heartland Institute (a key player in bogus research to cast doubt on climate change) are also pushing legislation to limit development of solar and wind energy. Posters declare “I’m an Energy Voter” (meaning oil and gas, with lip service to alternatives); full-page newspaper spreads portray “good neighbor” drillers in pristine landscapes. “We’re being drugged,” says McMillan, “with the language they use to present themselves.”


Rolling past miles of fading Pennsylvania farms, I have time to think about what happens to landscapes when drilling arrives. Both the Marcellus region and my home in Santa Fe County are rural. But in New Mexico land is mostly split estate—absentees, not surface owners, profit from drilling. There’s a different mix of surface owners, too: Turn over a rock in Santa Fe County, you’ll find a lawyer or environmentalist, maybe both. The drillers’ grab for low-hanging fruit, as McLane calls it, backfired in Santa Fe.

At first, confusion and fear reigned. News, rumors, and legal questions flew across my neighborhood’s e-mail lists: Shouldn’t groundwater trump mineral rights? Are scenery and wildlife just NIMBY (not in my backyard) values? What about archaeological ruins? Eight hundred people came to one community meeting, many assuming that all our officials were co-opted.

At first, residents wanted to ban all drilling, something we quickly learned would never stand up in court. The wildcatters threatened to sue the county into bankruptcy; their saber rattling clearly was taking a toll on the commissioners and the county attorney. A few of us decided to offer our land-related expertise to help them. It sounds so obvious with hindsight, but in the tense and suspicious atmosphere at the time, it was a leap beyond faith.

A self-described “recovering oil executive” gave us all a crash course in unconventional technologies like directional drilling. The ability to “steer” the drill means the well pad doesn’t have to sit directly over the petroleum reservoir.

A land-use lawyer explained “takings,” the Fifth Amendment clause requiring compensation if private property is taken for public use. The wildcatters took the industry’s standard position: Any regulation of drilling “takes” their rights. But the Supreme Court, it turns out, has ruled that regulation is not “taking” unless 90-plus percent of potential for development is denied.

I explained that by clustering multiple directionally drilled wells on a single pad, they can be rationally sited to avoid homes and surface features. I mocked up a McHargian overlay analysis on Mylar to demonstrate the idea.

Helping the county staff understand landscape issues proved critical to the whole process. It didn’t hurt to have real local investigative reporting, an Emmy-winning filmmaker (www.splitestate.com) in the area, or a former energy czar as governor. But the ultimate focus was on protecting this land, using the practical and legal tools of landscape planning.

County officials established a one-year moratorium on drilling permits. The nationally known land-use lawyer Robert Freilich and his team were hired to help county staff define a “do it right or not at all” ordinance. The county now requires payment, as a permit condition, for infrastructure improvements (roads, emergency services) necessitated by oil or gas operations. Drillers are limited in how much acreage may be disturbed for pads and roads—per well, and total. Before a driller or owner can claim “takings,” he must exhaust possibilities that include transfer of development rights via a “rights bank,” an idea widely used for other development regulation. Finally, there are the required best practices (setbacks, screening, remediation, etc.) that typically form the whole of a conventional ordinance.

These requirements are incentives for clustered drilling, which protects surface features (and saves operating costs; some drillers do it voluntarily). In 2008, the commission unanimously adopted the ordinance. I’ve heard it called one of the toughest in the country. It’s under threat every legislative session—every year, some industry-funded legislator tries to deny New Mexico citizens any say in oil and gas.


Heading down I-81 to fly home, I put music on full blast. I’ve spent nearly 10 days confronting the reality of drilling and fracking, and I’m near my limit. The gashed forests and farms are intensely disturbing; the data crowds my brain. And, like everyone else, I’m embedded in this fuel addiction; I’ve just driven 1,400 research miles in a gasoline vehicle.

Rounding a bend on the interstate, I nearly skid the car. Ahead of me is a green freeway sign for Frackville.

I imagine a Wild West town full of economically desperate workers and their vices, but there’s no drilling here. Once dependent on the coal industry, Frackville is a fairly typical Pennsylvania town, home to a mall and a famous diner. An explanation of the founder’s name (Daniel Frack, 1861) catches my eye: “from Middle Low German vrak: greedy, stingy, damaged, useless.”

With shales underlying more than half our states, and a juggernaut eager to drill them, vrak may sum up the landscape of our future.

Kim Sorvig is a landscape architect, design critic, and environmental author who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

3 thoughts on “Welcome to Frackville”

  1. Good to see Kim’s story finally got published. A couple amplifications if I may:

    RE: “Ill-treated effluent went into rivers, causing fish kills, one of which was 35 miles long.” While our tap water in the South Hills of Pittsburgh was affected with trihalomethanes in the manner he describes, this 35-mile long Dunkard Creek fish kill was caused by what we believe was the dumping of gas drilling frackwater into an abandoned coal mine near the creek, as well as moonlight dumping by a wastewater hauler who has since been prosecuted. A second cause of that fish kill was golden algae, favored by the brackish fluids. The latest and greatest concern for Pittsburgh rivers is high bromide levels in the Allegheny River with primary source causes pointing to several gas drilling wastewater facilities dumping upriver. Our water company, which draws our tapwater from the Monongahela River, switched from chlorination to chloramination in Spring 2012 to help address the trihalomethane issues. We still have to bathe in it, but we only drink bottled spring water.

    RE: “If the Smitskys’ lease paid as well as the neighbors’ had, they wouldn’t be complaining.” Everything written is correct up to the money part since the Smitsky’s rent their house and land, and are not receiving money from leasing gas rights under the property where they are tenants.

    Updates: A huge court case involving nearly 20 companies is upcoming in Washington County, Pa where it is alleged that a huge 13-million gallon frackwater impoundment leaked and contaminated a water aquifer and multiple water wells. This is the case that brought attention to the shady ‘Suite Code’ water test result issues at the Pa. DEP. Many friends here in S.W. Pennsylvania are hoping to move to frack-free zones as our tri-state area continues growing into a huge oil and gas patch. Watch “Gasland II” on HBO to learn more about ‘fracking.’

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