COVER STORY

The Gas Menagerie

Josh Fox’s documentary “Gasland” triggered a groundswell of opposition to fracking, the technology driving America’s gas-drilling boom. Now, as the industry hits back, Fox and other Columbians are digging in.

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2012
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Before there was Gasland, there was Hancock.  

In 2009, Columbia’s Urban Design Lab produced a remarkable document called “Hancock and the Marcellus Shale: Visioning the Impacts of Natural Gas Extraction Along the Upper Delaware,” which gave a clear and thorough assessment of natural- gas drilling’s likely effects on the economy and environment in the Delaware River watershed.

The lab’s director, Richard Plunz, who is a professor in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, has a home in Sullivan County, New York, in the region of the Marcellus Shale formation, which underlies parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio.

The report projected the town of Hancock as a “ground zero” for potential fracking in the Western Catskill region of New York State: “It’s where Route 17 meets the railroad, the river, and Route 97, which goes up the New York side,” Plunz says. “The railroad is important because you can haul fracking sand in and fracking fluid out of there. You also have the Delaware River and a lot of other surface water. So it was an obvious place to lease land.”

By 2009, a quarter of the land area in Hancock had already been leased for drilling.

“The Upper Delaware is protected by the National Park Service as a wild and scenic river,” Plunz says. “It’s an eagle sanctuary, and has some of the best trout fishing on the East Coast. This creates a conflict over the protection of water resources. The water is there, obviously, and the gas industry will need it. New York City has said, No way. New Yorkers don’t want their water system to be touched. People assume that the New York City restrictions will hold, legally. But then there’s the whole rest of the region.

“Many questions involve land values and property taxes. If there’s a lease on your land, your property is devalued. People didn’t understand that initially. They were told by the gas-company landsmen, ‘You’re going to make a fortune, and you won’t even see a well.’ But even without a well, nobody is going to buy property that has a lease. The value of the neighbors’ property probably decreases, too. No one wants to buy a house in an industrializing landscape.

“The long-term economic prospects for these towns are diminished. The land will be undesirable, scarred with roads and well pads and possibly contaminated. The owners will have collected their proceeds from the production as long as possible, but when the profits end they can simply walk away. With that, the town’s tax revenue fades.

“I live in the town of Lumberland, and am a member of the planning board. Next door is the town of Highland. In Highland, almost four thousand acres of land have been leased. There is a preserve of seventeen hundred acres with a sizable pond. The owners stocked the pond with trout, and they had a big restaurant and people went there and fished the trout, and the trout was cooked at the restaurant. It was a pretty big business. Then the owners leased the land. The pond will make a good water source for the fracking.

“Highland’s four thousand acres are adjacent to the new Millennium Pipeline, needed to haul the gas out. Nearby there are road improvements, like a new heavy-duty bridge across the Delaware connecting New York and Pennsylvania. They’re also building feeder pipelines. The infrastructure is moving ahead. The industry figures that it’ll prevail, and there’s only citizen opposition to stop it. Unless Cuomo really puts his foot down.”

What Goes Down Must Come Up

Household water samples, Dimock, Pennsylvania /  Photo by © Amy Sussman / Corbis“The gas industry tells the public it’s safe because they’re extracting the gas so far below the ground surface that any contaminants they use will never make their way up to an aquifer. But that assumes that the gas well is properly developed and sealed. If it’s not, contaminants have a pathway to migrate into upper aquifers. And once you’ve polluted an aquifer, it’s almost impossible to undo the damage.”
     — Patricia Culligan, professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science

Days after his trip to Albany, Josh Fox entered a lecture hall packed with 150 students at Goucher College in Baltimore. The mostly female audience, rich in multicolored hair and nose rings, giggled and whispered as Fox took the stage (“That’s Josh Fox!” “He’s so sexy!”). You might have thought he really was a rock star. Jumpin’ Josh Fox, he’s a gas, gas

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