ABOUT JASON MOLESKY
Jason Molesky is a PhD student at Princeton University, where he studies American literature and the environmental humanities. He holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi, where he was a Grisham Fellow in creative writing. Prior to his academic career, he worked as a maintenance assistant in an underground coal mine.
A resident in 2018, he remembers, “The lake was a mirror one morning. I was out paddling, thinking of the night before—the talk, the food, the stars. Then I looked down through the clouds. And there it was—the way to the scene I’d been trying to write… My desk at BMC, a photo of that desk, now hangs in a frame over my desk at home. BMC isn’t just a place; it’s a sort of brainwave. On the tough days, especially, I’m always grateful.”
This piece draws from a much longer essay, “Coal, Natural Gas, ‘Other Material,’ and Whiskey: Hydrofracturing Country, USA,” which appears in the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of The Georgia Review that also includes an essay on on environmental writing by BMC alum Camille T. Dungy. The issue can be ordered at www.thegeorgiareview with a discount for BMC reader using this promotional code: grfw1820.
My parents live in what used to be Pennsylvania coal and farm country. Scenery Hill, the name of their village—and it is a village, it says so on the welcome sign—described the place with almost comic accuracy during its first two centuries. Since about 2010, though, the so-called “shale revolution”—a new wave of hydrocarbon extraction that has made the United States the world’s leading producer of both oil and natural gas—has transformed Scenery Hill and much of rural Pennsylvania beyond easy recognition. The landscapes where I played as a youth have been rendered surreal. When I speak with my mother on the phone, I can’t be sure whether I feel like crying, laughing, or emplacing explosives. Either way, we usually avoid mentioning her long, unexplained illness, or the drilling complex four hundred feet from her and my father’s bedroom.
My great-grandfather, a forty-year union man who started in the mines at age twelve, built what is now my parents’ house by hand; after he died, my father, also a coal miner, spent four years renovating it, then hauled his and my mother’s things over in the old gray pickup. Like my great-grandmother did when she was alive, my parents still prune the lilacs and mountain laurel growing near the water well. The water itself, though, they no longer drink.
Six thousand feet below the house lies the Marcellus Shale, the largest deposit of natural gas in the hemisphere. To recover the gas—yes, “recover,” as if it had first been lost—requires an “unconventional” process called hydrofracturing, in which drillers inject a proprietary blend of noxious chemicals deep into the earth to free the gas. Hydrofracturing, or fracking, has been banned by numerous governments due to its proven environmental health impacts, ranging from asthma to seizures, rashes to stillbirth, not to mention its slow ecosystemic violence. Yet, despite Pennsylvania’s Constitutional guarantee of “the right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment” (added by popular referendum in 1971), the state has taken precisely the opposite course, ensuring instead the toxic exploitation of its lands, waters, and people.
Thanks to hydrofracturing in the Marcellus, Pennsylvania now produces more natural gas than all but six countries. Each year sees new production records. Nonetheless, as has long been the case throughout Appalachia, local people suffer the impacts of extraction while the wealth flows quickly out of state. Hydrofracturing has created boomtowns—in the Houston suburbs, where gas executives build gated estates. Multinational banks headquartered in New York and London finance the drilling and reinvest the capital, while roving contractors from Texas and Oklahoma hold the few good jobs on the rigs. For months, dozens of these workers lived on the well complex near my parents’ home, sleeping in retrofitted shipping containers. The legal basis for this type of housing is offshore drilling—a logic that places Scenery Hill in the middle of the ocean. Some large landowners in the area, it must be admitted, have received millions of dollars in gas royalties. A goodly number of these folks now live in Florida, on beaches soon to be inundated by the burning of natural gas extracted from their properties back home. Most locals, though, are more like my parents, who own a single acre of land, do not control their subsurface mineral rights, and receive nothing from the wells but daily terror.
Industry lobbyists have contributed upwards of $70 million to state legislators since 2008, and they’ve certainly got their money’s worth. Not only have they written many of the laws intended to regulate their companies, they have also ensured that Pennsylvania remains the only energy-producing state that levies no severance tax on natural gas extraction. This means, among other things, that Pennsylvania’s public university system, the most expensive in the nation for in-state students, regularly sees its budgets slashed for the benefit of fossil capital.
There are over 1200 unconventional wells in Washington County, where Scenery Hill is located, the most in the state; the county also leads in many metrics of opioid addiction. More than 50 well complexes operate within five miles of my parents’ home, each having between four and twelve wells. There are also several toxic-waste impoundments, huge rectangular pits lined with vanishingly thin black tarps, filled with radioactive byproducts of the drilling. Along once-familiar country roads, one can find the wondrous names of these operations posted along their perimeter fences. They include Captain USA, Ironman, Wolverine, Hulk, Captain Jack Sparrow, Golden Goose, Rumpelstiltskin, Bovinator, Mad Dog 20/20, and Captain Planet. The surreality, it seems, has no end.
The well complex across the road from my parents’ acre, situated at the nearest possible edge of the neighboring dairy farm, has probably the most fitting name of all: Gotham City. Its four shale wells, again rather aptly, take their names from a violent billionaire: Bruce Wayne A1H, Bruce Wayne A3H, Bruce Wayne A5H, and Bruce Wayne B7H.
These wells and all the others like them impact rural and urban areas very differently, thus further dividing an electorate already dangerously polarized by geography.
The only notice my parents received prior to the drilling was a form letter from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), an agency whose acronym, many residents joke, could just as well stand for “Drill Everywhere, Please.” The drilling and hydrofracturing were a two-month delirium of noise and light, pollution and heavy trucks. While television ads cast the company as a “good neighbor,” fine, chemically-laced sand wafted over the yard along with a sea of diesel smoke, giving my father headaches and nosebleeds. The morning he crossed the road to ask about noise mitigation, the foreman offered to have him arrested.
Following the drilling and hydrofracturing, as the wells began producing, the company built the offshore housing camp. The traffic and klieg lights continued at all hours. After several months, it then replaced the camp with a sub-compressor station whose noise and fumes resound through the valley day and night. Life is now underlain by a mechanical droning—a constant, dirge-like reminder of the poisons beneath the ground.
In September 2015, nearly two years after the wells were put in, my mother’s hair began falling out. She suffered headaches, nausea, vomiting, strange rashes. Her joints ached and grew so stiff that she had to give up her job. By November she was spending nights in the recliner with their cat—who himself would shortly be diagnosed with cancer—because she could no longer climb the stairs. She was seen by a phalanx of specialists, none of whom could offer a diagnosis. One determined that her symptoms likely resulted from an “unknown virus” impossible to detect. Finally, in late January, she started to improve. No one had any idea why. By spring, she was able to return to work, and today, three years later, she’s more or less herself.
Perhaps it was a phantom virus that debilitated my mother for six months. Although her symptoms have been frequently encountered in hydrofracturing areas throughout the country, we will never be certain what happened. My parents don’t like to talk about the ordeal, or whether it might happen again. After all, they have to keep living in the house. The odds of finding a buyer and a willing mortgage lender are laughable. The sub-compressor station drones on and on.
Hydrofractured natural gas has had a very different impact in urban areas. Consider Pittsburgh, the nearest city, about an hour’s drive from my parents’ home. On Internet maps that chart Marcellus drilling sites, the area around Scenery Hill appears riddled with fantastic tumors, while Pittsburgh and its affluent suburbs show clear. This discrepancy dates to 2010, when Pittsburgh became the first municipality in the United States to ban hydrofracturing, citing its multitudinous health impacts as the decisive factor.
The City Council should be commended for their unanimous 9-0 vote in support of the protections enshrined in the State Constitution. I was surprised, however, upon visiting the city last summer, to notice the logo of a major drilling company atop a downtown skyscraper. The implications seemed at odds with the Council’s ban. Yet this company has recently established itself as one of the city’s most active corporate partners. In 2017, it was the principal sponsor of the Pittsburgh 10-Miler and the Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta. To some controversy within LGBTQ communities, the company also sponsored the 2017 Pittsburgh Pride Parade, which it renamed the Equality March—apparently with no sense of irony regarding the unequal manner in which its operations distribute environmental fallout.
Shortly after I visited Pittsburgh, the company in question purchased the assets of the regional concern that had drilled Gotham City and most other well complexes around Scenery Hill, making it the largest natural gas production company in North America. The logo on the skyscraper now festoons the barbed-wire perimeter fences enclosing Gotham and much of Washington County. This geographical pattern is hardly new; it’s been evident for two centuries in Appalachia, and may be as old as civilization. The urban core enjoys the race, the regatta, and the parade of moral virtue, not to mention the infusion of capital and cheap energy, while the rural periphery, site of the resources themselves, suffers the bizarre illnesses, threats of arrest, and all the other “unknown viruses” associated with extractive operations.
Numerous political stakeholders have lauded hydrofractured natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that, relative to coal, can substantially reduce greenhouse emissions while society implements renewables. Others have situated it as a characteristic product of American ingenuity that will reestablish the nation’s “energy independence.” Narratives like these have worked to normalize hydrofracturing along much of the political spectrum. The problem is that they are misleading at best, and at worst they are outright lies.
Replacing coal with another fossil fuel only reiterates the same problems in new guises. Natural gas is superior to coal in the same way that hantavirus is superior to Ebola; the patient still dies, but with slightly more grace.
Using natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity cuts carbon emissions in half, but, due to infrastructural leakage, it also boosts emissions of methane—the main component of natural gas, and a very powerful greenhouse driver—such that, as many studies show, gas offers no overall climate benefit relative to coal. Even the most ambitious leak-reduction targets would only cut methane emissions by 45 percent—a more graceful figure, but death nonetheless. Indeed, because natural gas competes with zero-emissions energy sources like wind and solar in markets where coal no longer can, research suggests that broad use of natural gas may actually increase long-term carbon emissions as well.
Some scientists admit that natural gas energy does nothing to mitigate climate chaos, but still support it over coal, citing the positive health effects of its much lower soot and sulfur pollution. This view has its merits, but shows the typical urban bias in that, while the relevant fieldwork attends closely to air pollution levels in cities, it wholly ignores the enormous health impacts that hydrofracturing inflicts on rural areas. Effectively, then, these scientists are calling for a scenario in which people like my parents are systematically poisoned so that the rest of us might enjoy better health and cleaner air for the several decades left to us before the climate breaks down entirely.
Whatever one’s politics, wherever one lives, there is nothing affordable or independent about guaranteeing that the generations who come after us, human and nonhuman alike, will face constricted possibilities, damaged environments, and the steep costs of whatever adaptative measures might remain feasible at such a late date. Not only does hydrofracturing harm rural bodies and ecosystems, it also ensures catastrophic global warming everywhere. The only real beneficiaries of the “shale revolution” are the hydrocarbon corporations and their partners in codependency, our fossilized political parties. Unconventional oil and gas drilling, far from a bridge to a brighter tomorrow, is a deadly mirage at the worst possible time.
This fall my partner and I went to see my parents in Scenery Hill. The guilt of living elsewhere, of being able to leave, hangs upon the air like the droning of the compressor. It’s hard to recall the land before Gotham City—when my great-grandparents still lived, when we picked strawberries from the patch near the maple tree. The sky through the branches is such a deep, pacific blue that to imagine what its changing chemistry portends is even harder. Yet, as a nation, we can elect to move beyond our delusions, the stories we tell ourselves in order to live, and look honestly at the consequences of our energy policies. Then, instead of allowing Gotham to expand further, we can make the hard decisions necessary to build a just, sustainable future. Collectively, unlike my parents, we still have the choice.
 Because methane breaks down in the atmosphere faster than carbon dioxide, natural gas could be considered superior to coal over longer time horizons (i.e., around a century); by that point, however, research suggests that temperatures will likely have passed manageable levels and activated self-sustaining feedback cycles that will cause additional warming regardless.