GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Wilber "Under the Surface"


Tom Wilber has worked as an environmental journalist for more than 17 years and has won awards for his coverage of the Marcellus Shale and natural gas extraction. Below is the jacket material and trailer for his book Under the Surface:

Running from southern West Virginia through eastern Ohio, across central and northeast Pennsylvania, and into New York through the Southern Tier and the Catskills, the Marcellus Shale geological formation underlies a sparsely populated region that features striking landscapes, critical watersheds, and a struggling economic base. It also contains one of the world's largest supplies of natural gas, a resource that has been dismissed as inaccessible—until recently. Technological developments that combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") have removed physical and economic barriers to extracting hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of gas from bedrock deep below the Appalachian basin. Beginning in 2006, the first successful Marcellus gas wells by Range Resources, combined with a spike in the value of natural gas, spurred a modern-day gold rush—a "gas rush"—with profound ramifications for environmental policy, energy markets, political dynamics, and the lives of the people living in the Marcellus region. Under the Surface is the first book-length journalistic overview of shale gas development and the controversies surrounding it.

Control over drilling rights is at stake in the heart of Marcellus country—northeast Pennsylvania and central New York. The decisions by landowners to work with or against the companies—and the resulting environmental and economic consequences—are scrutinized by neighbors faced with similar decisions, by residents of cities whose water supply originates in the exploration area, and by those living across state lines with differing attitudes and policies concerning extraction industries. Wilber's evenhanded treatment gives a voice to all constituencies, including farmers and landowners tempted by the prospects of wealth but wary of the consequences, policymakers struggling with divisive issues, and activists coordinating campaigns based on their respective visions of economic salvation and environmental ruin. Wilber describes a landscape in which the battle over the Marcellus ranges from the very local—yard signs proclaiming landowners' allegiances for or against shale gas development—to often conflicting municipal, state, and federal legislation intended to accelerate, delay, or discourage exploration.

Click for a transcript of "Under the Surface" video.

TOM WILBER: Before frack became a loaded word, there was a time when the public was generally enthusiastic about shale gas development. I began covering the story of the Marcellus Shale when I was a reporter for the Press & Sun-Bulletin in 2008. Few people then really appreciated what the Marcellus was or what it was worth.

Landmen were leasing rights to all the land they could find for $5 an acre. When a group of farmers in Broome County landed to deal with a Texas company, XTO Energy, to lease 50,000 acres for $110 million, that's when people began paying attention. People who were sold on the prospects of clean-burning natural gas as a means to cleaner energy, national independence, and untold fortunes for the working farmer facing tax debts.

And then, on January 1, 2009, Norma Fiorentino's well exploded. It was an event that became iconic of the greatest environmental movement since Love Canal. Norma is a plumber's widow and home health aide who lives across the border of New York state in a trailer on a 7-acre homestead in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

NORMA: DEP was here today. And he said, I have to take your well and I have to take two different sites because, he said, the last one came back 25% gas. So whatever you do, don't drink it, he said.

TOM WILBER: I think of Norma as the Rosa Parks of the anti-fracking movement. Under the Surface chronicles the circumstances that ushered in a new era of on-shore drilling. It's a story of hope, naivete, and dashed expectations. And it's the story of a clash of ideology in two states straddling one of the richest natural gas resources in the world.

Source: 2014 Cornell University Press

As you read and reflect, consider these questions:

  • How has Penn State, along with other public universities, played a key role in the development of the natural gas extraction industry?
  • How have international economic and political relations impacted the development of the Marcellus Shale?
  • How have drilling companies worked to secure drilling rights to the natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale?
  • What different factors do landowners need to consider when deciding whether to sell rights to their land? What are the potential risks and benefits to signing with a drilling company? What are the risks and benefits to not signing?
  • What are the public risks to drilling in the Marcellus Shale? (These can be economic, environmental, and social justice risks).
  • What are the potential benefits to drilling in the Marcellus Shale?
  • What made Victoria Switzer and Ken Ely initially sign a lease with the drilling company Cabot Oil and Gas? What made them change their minds and become activists critical of the drilling company's conduct?
  • Can you think of ways that natural gas drilling could be regulated that might have prevented some of the problems detailed in Wilber's book?