Tag Archives: hydro-frack

A Driving Tour of Our Hopes and Fears

1 Jun

There is no good way to drive from Buffalo to Washington, DC.

Pull out a map (that would be the app on your smart phone, I doubt you have a paper one lying around), and pick an interstate that goes mostly south and a little east. You can take the 219 straight south, but once the much-delayed “ski-country express” peters out you must endure one-streetlight towns from Springville to nearly Altoona, where Interstate 99 awaits. You can take the 90 to the 390, but eventually you will be forced to cross the swath of hilly Pennsylvania that lies between you and the civilized Turnpike or I-270. Urbanphiles and those scared of twangy banjos go a hundred miles out of their way by shoe-horning Pittsburgh on the itinerary. The route then becomes all Interstate, at the cost of some hours.

Nothing makes one feel more provincial, more disconnected from the halls of power, than having to drive two hundred miles of two-lane highway through ramshackle ville’s on the way to your nation’s capital.

I still enjoy traveling and exploring those blank areas on my personal travel map, so despite the hazard of boring my wife and children who accompanied me, I braved rural central Pennsylvania. In doing so I passed through lands that could not be more unlike my final destination: coal and (lately) fracking country.

To the debaters of New York’s still unresolved hydro-fracking policy, northern Pennsylvania simultaneously offers the clearest evidence of both sides of the argument. To briefly review, drilling for natural gas has been occurring for decades in New York and Pennsylvania, and hydro-fracturing (or “fracking” as opponents call it so it sounds as much like “fucking” as possible) is a common process to extract the fuel. Hydro-fracturing the rock involves pumping a combination of water and chemicals into the shale beneath the ground. This ruptures the pockets of methane, allowing them to be extracted. The Marcellus Shale, significantly deeper than the rock that has been traditionally exploited and is now largely played out, has long been known as an additional, previously inaccessible, storer of significant natural gas deposits. Until High Volume Horizontal Hydro-Fracking (HVHHF) was invented, where the drill bit bores down much deeper and then horizontally across a bed of natural gas, it was either an engineering nightmare or not cost feasible to drill. The miracle of modern science has made the previously impossible now profitable, and New York and Pennsylvania have taken opposite approaches to this development.

In seeking jobs and economic development (as well as a cleaner burning energy source than coal or gasoline), Pennsylvania has opened large sections of the state to exploration. To avoid environmental damage and costs to human health, New York state has imposed a moratorium on HVHHF (though traditional fracking continues on shallower beds). The Buffalo Common Council even took the comical action of banning hyrdo-fracking within the city. While this did inspire other municipalities to take the same action, know there is no Marcellus Shale beneath Buffalo, and there was no danger of wells in Delaware Park. To hear the natural gas companies tell it, prosperity reigns across Pennsylvania, and down-on-their-luck New York State towns are foolish for throwing so much money away. To hear the environmentalists describe it, Pennsylvania is now a wasteland, carved up with pipelines and wells, flush with briny contaminants, and suffocated with semi-trucks.

Does it surprise anyone that I saw neither of these extremes on my own tour?

Rural Pennsylvania – from the New York line, through to Mount Jewett, Ridgway, Philipsburg, and the outskirts of State College – looks much as it has for many decades I am sure: dirty, poor, struggling, proud. Like Chris Matthews in a wet t-shirt contest, rural PA shows off its goods even when it shouldn’t. There is no poverty quite like rural, Appalachian poverty. Yes, when you drive through Bradford on the 219 you pass a massive flaring gas refinery. But that is hardly new:

Semi-trucks and traffic do clog the narrow, winding roads, but I saw far more coal-bearers and retail trailers bound for Walmart or McDonalds than tanker trucks carrying wastewater from mining operations. In only one section, and away from any refineries, I smelled the musty sulphur of natural gas for a full mile of driving; odd, and indicatve of a problem to be remedied, since the distinctive smell of natural gas is added later, indicating I was detecting finished product. Coal and natural gas companies are famous for obscuring the worst of their abuses behind a green facade. Outside Penfield, the tree canopy veneer could barely conceal the open top coal mine, and the highway was stained black, pure jet mounds lining the shoulder of the road like old, dirty snow. But you can’t hide wells and mines when the land opens to vista, and you can see a hundred square miles of rolling wooded hill and mountain in a single glance. I saw no natural gas flares, no clear-cut construction sites, and only a single pipeline, buried and less of a disruptive cut through the forest than the smallest of powerline right-of-way.

At the same time, I saw no new strip malls, no sprawling McMansion cul-de-sacs, no Lexus dealerships and Benz’s, no new lofts in downtown Bradford, and no easing of the boarded up blight in every historic nucleus of each sad town. The booming gas trade did not provide shoes for any more children, or new schools for them to learn in, than had clearly been modestly available for many years past.

It was clear this land had been settled and exploited for generations, and fracking provided few of the benefits, and no more of the ills, than the tough residents had learned to endure. If my albeit brief observation is any indication, a resident of Corning should neither hope nor fear hydro-fracking. Life appears much the same before and after its advent. It is neither the source of, nor solution to, every problem.

Contrast this alternating beautiful and depressing land with my final destination, the genuine boom-town of Northern Virginia. Washington may now qualify as a megopolis – it draws commuters from several thousand square miles, and creates traffic in four states, plus the district itself. My hotel was in the true mixed-use utopia of Rosslyn, just across the river from Georgetown and the Mall, and north of the cemetery and Crystal City office complex. In Rosslyn every tower is foodie on the bottom (trendy restaurants or Safeway), and business and living up top. One regularly encounters visions a hopeful resident of Buffalo’s Avant or AM&A’s Warehouse lofts can only dream off – streams of business suit clad workers leaving their homes in one tower to walk to work in an adjacent one. A packed Metro pouring additional pedestrians into DC proper. Runners and bikers at all hours of the day and night swarming the dedicated paths and lanes. There are street signs for the bike/running paths, so numerous and interconnected are they. On one morning, while out for a run to Roosevelt Island to visit my favorite President, I encountered a continuous packed throng jogging in the other direction. Had I accidently stumbled upon a race? No, just running clubs swelling the paths to capacity at 7am on a Saturday.

What does it take to create such an urban heaven? I think its fair to say that the ever-churning, ever-growing, ever-contracting and consulting government bureaucracy has more to do with Northern Virginia’s success than historic tax breaks and incentives. Government lays the well-oiled ground work to make the area livable: the ubiquitous paths, public transportation and police every two blocks. But good-old fashioned capitalism, the kind whose only incentive is making more money, brings the workers, investment, and mile after mile of gleaming office tower.

Buffalo is not in danger of being overwhelmed with natural gas fracking wells. Nor are we likely to incentive our way to Northern Virginia. We remain what we are: the provincial middle.