Blame — or thank — the volcanoes. Out here in Western Massachusetts, we sit on a geological shelf called the Hartford Basin, which runs from Vermont to the Connecticut shore, and its shale is pretty lacking, for fracking, because ancient volcanic activity heated up the trapped natural gas so much, it likely cooked it off. That’s why fracking companies, in search of natural gas, don’t much care for New England; in the Northeast, they love Pennsylvania, and its baked-just-right geology. In fact, the Marcellus Shale, named for a town in New York and stretching west to Ohio and south to Tennessee, is the nation’s biggest natural-gas producing region. How big? It holds 84 trillion cubic feet of the stuff. But the Hartford Basin? Only 3.5 billion. We aren’t worth the candle.
Massachusetts may not do fracking, with all the environmental concerns it stirs up, but the practice affects us nonetheless. Over the weeks I read these books, I spotted lots of “Say No to the Pipeline” lawn signs, courtesy of nofrackedgasinmass.org; the Tennessee Gas Pipeline Co. wants to funnel their Marcellus loot through New England, as far as Dracut. Pipeline yes or no, one fourth of US energy use now comes from natural gas. Amazing, since it’s been “as inaccessible as the sword in the stone from Arthurian legend,” writes Russell Gold, until innovations in hydraulic fracturing changed the game forever.
Gold is the senior energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of “The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World” (Simon and Schuster, 2014). He issues a smart overview of the history, the process, and the players, with a charged personal twist; his parents debate whether to let Chesapeake Energy frack their Pennsylvania farmland. We think of fracking as a new technology, but there’s a long comet trail of trial and error here. Just after the Civil War, an oilman named Edward Roberts invented the “Roberts torpedo,” cylinders filled with gunpowder that were lowered into water wells, in order to jet new seams in nearby oil-rich rock. After World War II, oilman Bob Fast added surplus napalm to the water, but this, and many like efforts after, produced too little return.
Gold also covers our modern pioneers, George Mitchell of Mitchell Energy and Aubrey McClendon of Chesapeake Energy. The turning point comes when hydraulic fracturing (shooting “slick-water,” full of chemicals and abrading sand) gets married to horizontal drilling, in that a long vertical drill (think the letter I) bends perpendicular far underground (now it’s an L). The water mixture is pumped in under high pressure, prying cracks open in the rock, and freeing gas trapped within. Gold is no fracking apologist here. But he does emphasize the benefits, namely that natural gas is the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel (its footprint is 60 percent lower than coal’s, the most carbon-intensive). It’s a bridge fuel, buying us time to perfect how to power the earth on sun and wind: “Until then, natural gas is the best available option available for reducing carbon emissions, without grinding the wheels of modern economies to a halt.”
In “Groundswell: The Case for Fracking” (Signal, 2014), Ezra Levant comes out swinging. He calls the opposition “hysterical” and “environmental extremists.” He also says the EPA has “found no proven cases of fracking-related contamination. Exactly zero. Not a single one, anywhere, ever.” It’s true that it’s hard to prove whether contaminants come from the fracking process, though rebuttals thrive in my other books. His more compelling point is that fracking is not just “about the cash,” it’s “about freedom.” Indeed, natural gas means that America is no longer beholden to those OPEC nations, or any other oil producers, that violate human rights. The choice is between “western shale gas versus Russian Gazprom gas, Iranian ayatollah gas, or Qatari sharia gas.” He adds: “It’s the choice between ethical energy and conflict energy.”
Richard Heinberg disdains the other side, too, though he’s got a better sense of humor about it in “Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future” (Post Carbon Institute, 2013). “[L]et the metaphor begin!” he says, and rolls out two teams, the first dubbed the “Cornucopians,” who think the natural gas supply could last up to a hundred years, like a horn of plenty. Their philosophy? “There’s nothing to worry about, folks. Just keep driving.” The Cornucopians are selling you snake oil, says Heinberg, thus his book title. But the Peakists (Heinberg’s team) can prove the downward slide is already here; he crunches the stats (or maybe gives the frackonomics?), stressing that the extraction rate stopped growing in 2005, so the peak has passed. All in all, it’s “downright dumb” to keep relying on fossil fuels.
Words like dumb or hysterical never appear in this next, refreshingly dispassionate, entry. In “Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University, 2013), Alex Prud’homme says fracking “is neither all good nor all bad,” though he admits that his case-against-it chapter is longer than the case-for-it one. Still, natural gas has been called “the fuel of no choice” because it’s better than oil and coal (because of those lower carbon emissions) and nuclear (because it releases no radioactivity). I was alarmed, however, to learn that companies are not required, by law, to reveal which chemicals slick their water; veteran fracking states like Pennsylvania have now passed disclosure laws, but new ones to the game (like Kansas) haven’t. In 2011, a congressional report said that of the 2,500 chemicals used in the fracking process, 650 contain “known or possible human carcinogens.” Meanwhile New Jersey and Vermont have banned fracking, and New York is holding off, until environmental impact studies are done.
“Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril” (RTI, 2012) tries to be even-handed, too, but it certainly cants toward promise over peril: Author Vikram Rao was the former chief technology officer of Halliburton, and currently directs North Carolina’s Research Triangle Energy Consortium. Rao is astute at presenting science-for-regular-people and clear-eyed that the boom market for natural gas, the second-chance fossil fuel, has slowed the onset of the renewables age. Thus “[p]olicy mechanisms are needed to level the playing field.” As such, Rao points to Alberta, Canada, where they tax oil from the Tar Sands, siphoning the revenue toward fixing eco-problems linked to oil and gas.
My last two books may not be carbon-neutral, but they are jargon-neutral, since they’re well-written, well-reported, and very human. “Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale” (Cornell University, 2012) is by Tom Wilber, a former newspaper reporter in upstate New York, and because an academic press published it, the book was peer reviewed. And indeed, it opens with a field trip with a professor of geosciences (Terry Engelder of Penn State), the renowned (and controversial) authority on the Marcellus Shale. But Wilber also gives us many residents of Dimock, Pa., like the dairy farmer, the plumber’s widow, and more, who wrestle with the Faustian bargain of selling drilling rights to their land.
Finally, to my most marvelous title, “The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone” (Random House, 2011). Author Seamus McGraw is both meticulous and moody in this memoir/long-form journalism combo, kind of John McPhee meets Karl Ove Knausgaard. In 2007, when the writer’s mom calls from their Pennsylvania farm to say a fracking company had approached her — to the tune of $250,000, with perhaps millions in royalties later — McGraw admits he didn’t know the “difference between Marcellus Shale and Cassius Clay.” But, having grown up here, he does know the abundance underground: “Even in the dead of winter, if you reach down and touch the ground, it’s hot. It’s like hell is buried one shovelful down.”
He goes on to describe the material and psychological disturbances of living in Frackistan. The sounds of blasting, construction, the endless trucks carting in water. But more than that, it’s the fraying of community. “[P]eople who had always stoically shared the hardships of rural life seemed no longer willing to share anything at all,” McGraw writes. It was, as one woman put it, “the end of country.” Thanks to once active volcanoes, and current volcanic activists, the Bay State has kept that, at least, at bay.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. firstname.lastname@example.org.