Fracking and a Community Turned Upside-down

By Karen Melton, Southeastern Pennsylvania Group, Sylvanian Staff

Between 2011 and 2018, the greater Williamsport area was transformed from a small city surrounded by bucolic countryside into a gritty industrial park consisting of parking lot-sized well pads cleared of all trees, drilling rigs towering over treetops, access roads jammed with big rigs, security stations, flares that turned the night sky orange, incessant noise, and camps of temporary workers. Owners of forests and farms had been offered signing bonuses to lease drilling rights to their land -- some very substantial -- and stood to potentially reap monthly royalties. They were assured that, after the drilling phase was completed, they would hardly know the wells were there. They were also told that they had to decide quickly, and that everyone around them had already leased. A local anti-drilling advocacy group tried to warn them, but many locals distrusted environmentalists.
In 2013, Colin Jerolmack, Professor and Chair of the Environmental Studies department at New York University, temporarily moved to Williamsport to witness and document firsthand what happens in a community overtaken by the fracking industry. His research, observations and relationships have been turned into a recently published book Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. The title refers to the fact that the United States is the only country in the world which commonly confers ownership rights to deed holders that extend far above and below the land’s surface. After reading the book, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jerolmack and wanted to share some of his observations and insights with Sierra Club members.
Q: Professor Jerolmack, you talk in your book about how people in greater Williamsport were concerned about the exact same fracking issues as environmentalists,such as forest destruction, well water contamination, truck traffic, flaring, noise -- and yet they did not view environmentalists who were opposed to fracking as allies or even as people they wanted to associate with. Can you explain that?
A: First of all, almost all the landowners I met who lived in the rural surrounds of Williamsport leased their land for gas drilling. That meant that they received signing bonuses and, if gas was extracted from beneath their properties, monthly royalty checks. Some folks earned thousands of dollars per month. Municipalities also received so-called impact fees for every gas well drilled. So there’s a financial incentive to support the industry. But that’s not the whole story. Many of the people I befriended were conservative, if not libertarian, in their politics. They were suspicious that environmentalists were conspiring with government bureaucracies to regulate away their livelihoods and freedom to dispose of their land as they see fit. Several high-profile protest events against fracking brought in activists from cities like Philadelphia and New York. This led many locals to dismiss those opposed to fracking as “outsiders” who did not respect or subscribe to what locals often called “rural values.” In this politically polarized situation, even local advocacy groups like the Responsible Drilling Alliance were often dismissed as part of an urban liberal movement.
Q: Given those observations, what do you think environmental advocates could or should do differently?   
A: Many environmentalists’ emphasis on greater government restrictions on fracking is a nonstarter for people who distrust state and federal bureaucracies and don’t like the idea of others telling them what they can and can’t do on their property. But I think there’s room to make inroads by advocating for community-led resource management (which is a cornerstone of president Biden’s new “America the Beautiful” conservation plan). In the book, I talk a lot about how conservative legislatures in Pennsylvania and other oil- and gas-producing states have drastically curtailed the traditional right of communities to regulate land uses like fracking locally through mechanisms like zoning. I was surprised to discover that many of the communities fighting for the right to enact local restrictions or even bans on fracking in Pennsylvania, Texas, and Colorado are conservative-leaning. The lesson: many rural residents are willing to support greater oversight of the industry if they get to help write the rules. So I think working with communities to enact and defend (in court) their own home rule charters could bring small-town conservatives on board. To be clear, some are already doing this work. Most notable, perhaps, is the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund’s partnership with Grant township, in which residents created a community charter that bans wastewater injection wells and successfully fought off a lawsuit filed by a petroleum company seeking to construct an injection well. Only 36 municipalities in Pennsylvania currently have home rule charters, even though the state constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment provides a strong legal foundation for communities to regulate fracking based on their right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Lastly, the massive, years-long grassroots mobilization to prevent fracking in the Loyalsock Forest, spearheaded by a coalition that includes the Sierra Club, suggests that a campaign centered on stopping gas drilling in Pennsylvania’s state forests and game lands could draw strong bipartisan support.

Q: You talk about how PA's legal and regulatory environment strongly favors industry over local government and protection of natural resources. Could you describe some of those policies?
A: Act 13 infamously preempted local zoning. Even though the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declared that unconstitutional, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)  maintains that there is no constitutional right to local self-government regarding fracking. The DEP continues to challenge the legality of home rule charters in court, going so far as to sue municipalities like Grant that have enacted them. In my opinion, the DEP has been hesitant to proportionately punish industry malfeasance; several years ago, it rescinded an $8.9 million fine it levied against Range Resources even though the Harman Lewis well continues to leak methane into a nearby stream and several private water wells ten years after it was drilled. Indeed, last year a statewide grand jury investigation concluded that Pennsylvania regulators “did not do enough to properly protect the health, safety and welfare” of citizens. What’s more, Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t tax petroleum companies for the gas they extract. A severance tax, as my friend Ralph Kisberg of the Responsible Drilling Alliance has pointed out, could be used to help fund a just transition to renewable energy. Finally, although there is a moratorium on new leases on public lands in Pennsylvania, tens of thousands of acres that were previously leased in an auction bonanza are still at risk of being fracked.

Q: You argue in the book that “America's privileging of individual sovereignty and property rights sanctions usurping the commons, frays the fabric of communities and undermines the social contract.” Can you say more about that?

A: We are the only country in the world where property rights commonly extend “down to hell.” What that means is that this incredibly momentous decision-- whether or not to extract shale gas and oil from the very land beneath our feet—is largely a private choice that millions of ordinary people make without the public’s consent. We treat land sovereignty as akin to free speech, but we shouldn’t. You can’t lease your land for oil or gas drilling without impacting the wellbeing of your community, and the planet. Your decision to lease can undermine your neighbors’ ability to enjoy their own estate, or even their health. In this way, I argue that land leasing actually infringes on others’ rights--to their own life, liberty, and property. And so there need to be mechanisms that ensure greater opportunity for people who are affected by this land-use decision to have a say in it.