"Fracking Pennsylvania": New Book Recounts History of the Northeast's Shale Rush

Read time: 4 mins

Walter Brasch begins his new book, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, by explaining in the introduction that he never intended to write an anti-fracking book. “But,” he writes “as I accumulated mounds of evidence, I realized that fracking, even under the best of conditions, is a problem.”

There is no question that Brasch, a former journalism professor, did his research before arriving at that conclusion. His 400-page tome is rife with footnotes (over 1,400 citations) and quotes from various experts on the history of Pennsylvania and the industry that has come to dominate much of its politics over the past several years.

It's a story with national implications, as the state is home to the nation's most productive shale gas field, attracting attention from politicians in Washington D.C. — and also providing numerous cautionary tales for other states undergoing similar shale booms.

The book, a remarkably timely primer that seems like it would be well at home in a college classroom, is divided into three main parts.

Part I reviews historical, political and economic issues, beginning with a look back at energy policies nationwide going back centuries. For Pennsylvania, that has meant a long line of extractive industries: lumber companies clear-cut the state, in part to fuel massive iron forges, then coal companies arrived, first delving deep into underground mines then strip-mining the surface and leaving behind 2,500 miles of streams heavily polluted by acid mine run-off.

But it's the state's most recent energy bonanza that is the main focus of the book: the Marcellus shale and the natural gas industry's drilling rush.

Brasch devotes a rich chapter to the state's current governor, Tom Corbett, elected in 2010, and now widely seen as one of the nation's least popular elected officials. Corbett, Brasch writes, appointed individuals with strong industry ties and an anti-regulatory philosophy to key positions in his administration, including the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Department of Environmental Protection, noting that Corbett's appointees and their immediate families had made six-figure donations to Corbett's campaigns before they were selected for their jobs.

He then recounts battles over fracking during Corbett's administration, including the major fight over Act 13, key provisions of which aimed to prevent communities from using zoning laws to keep drilling at bay. Those provisions were struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in December. 

“By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and the future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction,” PA Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille wrote in that decision.

In Part II, Mr. Brasch delves into health and environmental issues. He reviews numerous claims of water contamination, including the case of Dimock, Pennsylvania, which was featured in Gasland, and describes air pollution and gas explosions that destroyed homes in Bradford Township.

Some of the book's most interesting material centers on the grassroots activists in the state and the campaigns that they've organized.

In Part III, Brasch tells the story of one community group that held its first meeting in a church basement in March, 2010, and six months after it organized as a non-profit, found itself the target of  a state homeland security contractor, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response, and on a FBI watchlist. When documents revealing this were made public, then-Governor Rendell called the incident “extraordinarily embarrassing” and the head of the state's Office of Homeland Security, James Powers, resigned. The group, the Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition, continues its work — bringing in experts on fracking to speak twice annually in the Wilkes-Barre area.

As Gov. Corbett faces a tough re-election campaign, some have expressed skepticism that challenger Tom Wolf will take an aggressive approach to preventing harm from fracking. Although the state's Democratic party has called for a moratorium on fracking, Mr. Wolf has supported taxing the industry instead — a stance that drew protests from environmental activists during Wolf's Democratic primary victory celebration.

Brasch addresses his subject with the authoritative voice of a long-time investigator. The author of 18 books, including Unacceptable: The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006) and  Betrayed: The Death of an American Newspaper (1996), and the recipient of numerous journalism prizes including a lifetime achievement award from the Pennsylvania Press Club, Brasch began his reporting career in the 1960's. He currently writes a weekly syndicated column carried by over 30 print newspapers and serves as an editorial board member of the Journal of Media Law and Ethics.

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