The supple hills of Southwestern Pennsylvania, once known for their grassy woodlands, red barns, and one-stoplight villages, bristle with new landmarks these days: drilling rigs, dark green condensate tanks, fields of iron conduits lumped with hissing valves, and long, flat rectangles carved into hilltops like overgrown swimming pools, brimming with umber wastewater. Tall metal methane flaring stacks periodically fill the night with fiery glares and jet engine roars. Roadbeds of crushed rock, guarded by No Trespassing signs, lie like fresh sutures across hayfields, deer trails, and backyards, admitting fleets of tanker trucks to the wellheads of America's latest energy revolution.Read more in "Fractured Lives" in the new issue of Sierra Magazine. I traveled to Pennsylvania and Ohio to investigate the health and environmental impact of fracking, and learned that the so-called 100-year supply of clean energy is really only proven to be 11 years worth of gas -- and that it's being extracted in such an extreme and wasteful manner that its greenhouse gas footprint exceeds that of coal.
This is the new face of Washington County, the leading edge of the nation's breakneck shale gas boom. Natural gas boosters, President Barack Obama among them, have lauded it as a must-have, 100-year supply of clean, cheap energy that we cannot afford to pass up.
But unlocking half-billion-year-old hydrocarbon deposits carries a price, and not everyone shares in the bonanza. For every new shale well, 4 million to 8 million gallons of water, laced with potentially poisonous chemicals, are pumped into the ground under explosive pressure--a violent geological assault. And once unleashed, the gas requires a vast industrial architecture to be processed and moved from the wells to the world. Imagine the pipes, compressors, ponds, pits, refineries, and meters each shale well in Pennsylvania demands, planted next to horse farms, cornfields, houses, and schools. Then multiply by 5,000.
"It's changed everything, all right," says Pam Judy, a resident of Carmichaels, in neighboring Greene County. Her now-unsellable dream home sits 780 feet downwind of three enormous gas compressors, which appeared in 2009. "It sounds like helicopters in the backyard," she says. "The fumes make me dizzy. My children get headaches and nosebleeds. Some opportunity...."