‘Fracking’ and the Disappearing Elsewhere

Next week, on June 21st, HBO will air the documentary “Gasland”, the award winning documentary directed by Josh Fox. In the film, Fox sets out across the country to document the recent boom in the practice of gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ for short. The process of fracking involves drilling deep, horizontal wells into underground shale deposits and using high pressure, chemically laced water to break open the rock, releasing trapped natural gas.

Gasland” follows in the same year as “Split Estate,” another documentary taking up the same topic by filmmaker Debra Anderson. In Anderson’s film, the title, Split Estate, refers to a land ownership arrangement whereby the surface rights of a piece of land and the subsurface rights, such as those allowing for the use of mineral resources, are owned by different parties. In such a lease arrangement, the mineral rights take precedence over the rights associated with the property ownership- often in conflicting ways

In both films the side effects of this new generation of gas drilling and land leasing are documented in communities, mostly located in western states like Colorado, New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest. Both seek to draw out the apparent consequences of hydraulic fracturing through the portraits of individuals, families and communities living in regions where new lease arrangements with gas companies have created myriad environmental and economic conflicts. They illustrate the realities of living in contaminated watersheds that have in some cases led to debilitating illnesses from exposure to drinking water affected by chemical byproducts. Perhaps more importantly though, the two films ask whether or not natural gas is in fact the safe cousin to that other fuel resource currently wreaking havoc on the Gulf of Mexico.

While both films are flawed by their own overly personal, one-sided tone, reminiscent of most Michael Moore-style documentaries, they serve to problematize the notion that our relationship to energy is relative to our distance from some geographic ‘elsewhere’. If hydraulic fracturing seems a remote issue there is good reason. It has largely been confined to more landlocked, less populous, and less politically vocal regions in the U.S.- thus off the radar of the more and politically influential regions like the Northeast.

But the northeast is no longer at a remove from this kind of drilling. For more than a century natural gas wells have been drilled in the Northeast. In upstate New York alone there are more than 13,000 active wells. But the new wells present an entirely different set of challenges and concerns. Conventional systems require about 80,000 gallons of fresh water per well according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Hydraulic fracturing on the other hand requires millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals drawn from 260 elements, many of which are toxic. The fact that the waste water generated in the process has been known to find its way back into surface and ground water supplies is therefore a troubling concern to both landowners and regional populations.

Two years ago, a surge in land lease agreements began between land owners in upstate New York and gas companies hoping to drill within the Marcellus Shale, a region running across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia. The region intersects a watershed that provides drinking water to 8.2 million people in New York City alone. In recent months the State of New York has taken proactive steps to impose regulations limiting the amount of drilling within the region. This includes substantial regulatory burdens as well as mandatory disclosure of fracturing fluid content and pre-drilling baseline water quality assessments- measures which will likely eliminate the possibility of drilling near the watershed providing New York City’s water.

This may be overly optimistic, however. With only 16 inspectors in New York whose task it will be to monitor thousands of wells, the job of overseeing this scale of operation may prove to be unrealistic.

From the windows of our offices in Manhattan I can look out onto an urban landscape that was long ago cleared of virtually all immediate ecological services or local environmental resources. New York City is inherently a place that exists because of its ability for locating and delivering natural resources- be they energy or drinkable water- from elsewhere. In Anderson’s film “Split Estate,” various individuals and communities are confronted with the problem of when that somewhere else is right outside the back door; where the relative geographies of here and elsewhere are collapsed. In that same space, the processes of the production and consumption of natural resources collide, leaving bare the dual facts of our need to consume energy and the consequences of leaving the landscape unchecked.

Two weeks ago in a region of the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, a hydraulic fracking well had a blowout which sent gas and water polluted with drilling fluids 75 feet into the air for about 16 hours until it was finally shut down. This was one in a number of potentially avoidable accidents within the Marcellus Shale region since this type of drilling began in less regulated states like Pennsylvania. Increasingly, the disappearance of the ‘elsewhere’s’ once enjoyed by the major population centers such as New York City are asking us to consider something more. While we have come to expect accidents in the process of extracting hydrocarbons will there come a time when we are asked to accept them as well? At that point will they be outside all of our back doors too?

Hopefully before that moment comes we can find a way to collapse the ‘here’ of our remaining resources and environments with the ‘elsewhere’ of our future energy and industry needs. And finally, perhaps this system will be one that we produce benefits with rather than make apologies for.

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