July 2011

Energy, community and a compelling story

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The search for sustainable sources of energy continues with great urgency in many places. One area that has attracted much attention in the last several years is a stratum of shale called the Marcellus, which was discovered 150 years ago and named for a small town in New York state where the layer of shale had, after a series of geological upheavals, been wrenched to the surface. Some estimates say it contains the third largest cache of natural gas in the world, with a potential worth in the millions of dollars.

Getting to that natural gas, however, is not easy. Part of the Marcellus stratum is in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, a rural, rocky, remote part of the state populated primarily by several generations of farmers and their families. When representatives from gas companies began to appear there and sought to persuade landowners to sign documents giving the companies the right to drill on their property, it set in motion a classic story of locals with deep family roots and a suspicion of Big Oil and Big Government versus large corporations willing to spend a lot of money in the hopes of eventually reaping huge profits. At the same time, it could also provide at least a short-term solution to the nation’s energy needs.

Journalist Seamus McGraw grew up in the area, and his mother was one of the first to be approached by an oil company wanting a lease to drill on her property. In The End of Country he tells the compelling story of how residents of the community were changed by this apparent good luck that led to, among other consequences both good and bad, what one resident called “the end of country.” Two of the prominent personalities in the story are Ken Ely, a sometimes cantankerous, self-described hermit who has lived there for many years, and a newcomer, Victoria Switzer, a former teacher who moved to the area with her husband to build a home that could be their refuge. Although different in so many ways, Ken and Victoria find themselves unlikely allies in dealing with some of the negative aspects of the big changes confronting the landowners. Another key figure is Terry Engelder, a Penn State University professor whose reading of the initial production reports from a few gas wells in the Marcellus shale led him to estimate greater productivity in the area than originally thought—setting off a frenzied bidding for access to landowners’ property.

But there is much more in this carefully researched and beautifully written account. McGraw wants us to understand that “the whole history of the Marcellus shale . . . was itself a history of random accidents and improbable coincidences.” He tells about unique and often desperate men who over the years were obsessed with mastering and subduing this vast area of potential underground energy. He gives us a history of some of these who made significant contributions but did not personally profit from them. Among many other subjects, he explains the controversial practice of “fracking,” the shorthand for “hydraulic fracturing.” Although drillers vouch for its safety, the state government of Pennsylvania and the federal government consider the used frack water to be so dangerous that they say it is the most toxic byproduct of gas development.

The story McGraw tells takes place over hundreds of millions of years, and it is also about our present and our future. It is a personal story about how families and a community met the challenges and dilemmas posed by the energy companies and by the protection of their own land and the environment. The End of Country is an important book that deals with complex issues in a reader-friendly way.

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