Fracking: Boom or Doom

America's hydraulic fracturing gold rush portends the greatest environmental disaster of a generation

Fracking: Boom or Doom
Illustration by Kyle Fewell.

Ask someone like Jon Entine, a science writer for Ethical Corporation, to describe the sort of person who claims hydraulic fracturing presents a pollution nightmare in waiting, and you quickly find yourself pummeled with talk radio invective: "ideological blowhard," "leftist loony," and "upper-middle-class lefties."

But none apply to Fred Mayer.

When a reporter arrives at his 200-year-old farmhouse on a cloudy June day, one of the first things Mayer asks is: "Do you know who Glenn Beck is? You should really listen to him. Now that man knows what he's talking about."

Fred Mayer in Newark Valley, New York
Mark Hewko
Fred Mayer in Newark Valley, New York
Texan Sharon Wilson writes about fracking on her blog, Bluedaze.
Danny Fulgencio
Texan Sharon Wilson writes about fracking on her blog, Bluedaze.

The 62-year-old Vietnam vet's yard in Newark Valley, New York, is full of patriotic flags. His rotund body is covered in tattoos, with barbed wire wrapped around his thick arms and an Iron Cross on his left fist.

The first time he heard of fracking was in 2008. It's a natural gas drilling process in which millions of gallons of water—mixed with sand and more than 596 toxic chemicals—are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet belowground, the pressure fracturing them to release the natural gas they hold inside.

Decades ago, Shell Oil attempted to drill on Mayer's property in hopes of retrieving the river of black crude that resides just under the rock formation. "They never were able to do it," he says. "They couldn't get through the rock, so they gave up."

Shell eventually sold its lease to Fortuna Energy. Mayer thought nothing of it until 2008, when his neighbors started getting leasing offers from gas companies that had a new way of drilling that could get through the thick layers of shale just fine. Only this time, they were in search of natural gas, often heralded as the greenest fossil fuel.

Mayer gave Fortuna a call, only to find that his father had leased their property for just $4 an acre. Since Dad had passed away, Mayer told Fortuna that the agreement was null and void. Fortuna countered with a new offer: $600 an acre. Mayer soon received a check for $58,200, with a promise of more to come.

But it wasn't long before Mayer received another surprise—this one less pleasant. One morning, he turned on his kitchen sink. Instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter, held it to the faucet, and watched it burst into flames.

Although Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one actually came out to investigate.

"[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer's well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons," says Emily DeSantis, a department spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer's residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but also "naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state."

Mayer knew better, of course. His water hadn't become flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can't drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it blasts coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes.

Still, Mayer was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time he signed his lease, then-governor David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monongahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.

As Mayer sees it, his water is already contaminated, and he could use his 17 percent cut of Fortuna's drilling profits. According to Public Policy Polling, about half of southern New Yorkers agree and hope that Governor Andrew Cuomo will lift the ban so they can begin reaping the riches promised by companies like Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Cabot Oil & Gas, and Schlumberger.

It doesn't seem to matter that in the past decade fracking has left behind a widening trail of health and environmental disasters. Or that research indicates the influx of money and jobs promised by these companies falls far short of their claims. New York landowners still whisper stories of overnight millionaires just over the border.

That's because people are desperate to flee the pressure of another disaster, the one created by the housing crash. The difference is that fracking could imperil more than pocketbooks. There's no shortage of scientists and public health officials who warn that large-scale contamination might leave millions of people without usable water.

Yet the natural gas industry has spent $747 million lobbying state and federal officials over the past decade, allowing it to continue drilling in 34 states. Few Americans are any richer. But a whole lot more have horror stories to tell.

Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as an anti-fracking loony. Range Resources, one of the largest fracking firms in the nation, has even accused her of manufacturing false evidence in a conspiracy to defame the company.

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