The Marcellus Shale and the Fracking Myth 

Disclaimer: This essay contains spoilers from The Trouble at Deacon Hill

My recently published novel The Trouble at Deacon Hill revolves around a reporter and blogger investigating a natural gas company following a well explosion on a farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania. At first, you’d think it’s a freak accident that eventually got out of hand. However, as Pittsburgh Clarion Call reporter Marie Franco and blogger Claudia Cruces dig deeper into the disaster and Padraic Resources, they gradually discover how much messed up the state natural gas industry in Pennsylvania is.  

Now not all of what I say in Deacon Hill is true. For instance, gas companies don’t hire security contractors to kill off people to silence them, preferring legal bullying tactics instead. Nor would a gas company be based in Greensburg skyscraper as no such building exists. As most are based out of state, particularly in places like Texas. But a lot of what I wrote about the gas industry in the novel does and has happened. The Mallowvitch case was based on the stories of Stephanie Hallowich and her neighbor Ron Gullah. The Harnett case was based on few cases relating to farms that I combined. Gallagher’s Crossing’s debacle took inspiration from Range Resources’ clash with the town of Mount Pleasant (within Washington County, PA for those close to me to avoid confusion with the one in Westmoreland County). While I based the Highland Town pipeline blast on one that happened in 2016 in Salem Township while I was writing the book. The PSYOPs stuff is also based on Range Resources doing just that.  

What inspired me to write Deacon Hill was my experience with the gas industry in my neighborhood. Although nothing catastrophic happened aside from a creek bridge collapse on my road that nearly shut it down for over a year, no one got rich on it. In fact, the money was only a trickle from what the natural gas industry said it would be. The gas boom didn’t create many jobs. As of June 2021, most of the gas wells in my neck of the woods have ceased operation. And yet, during that time, I could remember Range Resources really selling the scheme that fracking’s safe, will bring money landowners, and much needed jobs to our state and region. Despite that I knew the image they convey in these TV ad spots was pure bullshit. Sure, the natural gas industry might’ve brought some benefit to Pennsylvania. But not a high cost to our infrastructure and environment that natural gas drilling may not be worth it. In addition to partly basing my novel on my gas land experiences while both in high school and college, I also conducted extensive research on fracking, leasing, royalties, working conditions, accidents, and politics. It’s very clear that PA’s natural gas industry wasn’t nearly as rosy as what Range Resources conveyed in its commercials. 

Since 2014, hydraulically fractured horizontal wells have accounted for the majority of new oil and natural gas wells developed in the United States, surpassing all drilling techniques. By 2016, nearly 70% of the country’s 977,000 producing oil and gas wells were horizontally drilled and fracked. The fracking boom that started during my high school and college days, is largely credited with making the US a top natural gas and crude oil producer in the world. And as fracking becomes more efficient (with fewer rigs generating greater output) and enable access to more of the country’s fossil fuel reserves, the trend’s expected to continue. With approximately 3/5 of the state atop the Marcellus Shale play, Pennsylvania is only second to Texas in producing natural gas, generating nearly 1/5 of US supply in 2017. In 2018, the Delaware River Basin (watershed spanning parts of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware) was marked off-limits to fracking. Although threats to drinking water and the environment still remain since some proposed regulations would still allow disposal of fracking wastewater in the watershed. Meanwhile, statewide concern about fracking hazards has mounted in recent years. According to a 2018 poll, 55% of Pennsylvanians believe fracking’s potential environmental risks outweigh its potential economic benefits. And in some cases, like in Deacon Hill, Pennsylvania has already seen fracking’s risks play out with drinking water contamination and air pollution. 

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During the 2020 presidential election, due to Pennsylvania’s status as a critical swing state, a series of pro-Trump ads tried to scare people into thinking Joe Biden would ban fracking. Although it’s not true, a fracking ban wouldn’t be catastrophic for Pennsylvania. And no, the state wouldn’t lose over 600,000 over it. However, what got me about these ads wasn’t just the message, but how fracking advocates keep selling a fantasy. Despite any benefit fracking has for the state, the natural gas industry is nowhere near the godsend fracking advocates claim. In some cases, whether through fracking, inadequate infrastructure, disasters, politics, and so much more, the natural gas industry has become the bane of a community’s existence. 

In these pro-Trump fracking ads from 2020, working the gas fields is just another day at the office. Gas workers get up, get ready, kiss and wife and kids goodbye, work an 8-hour shift, and return to their quaint single-family homes by dinner time. Sure, it’s a nice portrait but that’s not a typical day for most gas workers. Far from it. For one, as 2019, that natural gas industry has created 24,000 to 40,000 jobs. Secondly, as in most extractive economy despite what nostalgia might tell us about the bygone industrial days in the Rust Belt, natural gas isn’t a stable industry. Rather, it creates boom and bust cycles while producers often can’t survive without state money. Third, most gas workers in PA come from out of state and most don’t plan to stay. They don’t buy houses. They don’t bring their families. Thus, a gas worker residing in a single-family home is way less likely than say, a nearby hotel or an on-site trailer with a few other guys. Maybe even a shipping container. Nor do they always work at the same site beyond a few weeks or months. Once their work is done, they leave for the next project. Thus, rendering the prospect of any permanent residence moot.  

Most importantly, while fracking jobs may pay up to $50,000 a year, gas workers’ lives absolutely suck. Weeks and months away from their families aside, life in the gas fields isn’t worth the paycheck. While gas workers are supposed to work 8-hours days on paper, they’re usually the exception than the norm in practice. Most work beyond that, sometimes non-stop for over 24 hours, which doesn’t do favors in regards to sleep. Not to mention, many gas companies don’t pay overtime for those extra hours, an issue many legal websites explain in great detail. Considering that such work involves operating and fixing heavy machinery, contending with slippery surfaces, working on multiple platforms, and a high-pressure work environment, it’s a set up for disaster. In addition, many gas workers are young and inexperienced with such site equipment because their employers don’t take the time to properly train them. It’s no wonder gas pads are often ripe for routine workplace accidents consisting of slips and falls, machinery malfunctions and human error, explosions and fires, falling objects causing death or injury, and exposure to hazardous chemicals. Such incidents can cause serious injuries like broken bones, skull fractures, brain injuries, amputations, burns, and even death. Gas companies have a reputation in covering many of these accidents up. In addition, it’s not uncommon for a single drill pad to have workers from multiple companies, adding to difficulties in coordination. Oh, and given that they often can’t unionize, gas workers can’t address their grievances to the boss without the risk of getting fired. 

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Of course, there’s fracking, which receives the most attention in regards to natural gas drilling as it’s been the most contentious. Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking comprises of blasting chemicals and massive amounts of water into a drilling borehole at high enough pressures crack into the seemingly impenetrable rock formations. Such blasting is supposed to open the fissures and allow the trapped gas to flow up to the surface. The most contentious part of this process is in the fluid, namely, what’s in it. According to the NRDC, this consists of 97% water, along with chemical additives and proppants (small, solid particles used to keep fractures open in the rock after the injection pressure subsides). Most states with oil and gas production have rules requiring chemical disclosure in regards to fracking. However, those rules often contain exclusions for “confidential business information (CBI), which gas companies can use to shield chemical identities considered trade secrets. When the EPA examined more than 39,000 chemical disclosure forms submitted to FracFocus from January 2011 to February 2013, more than 70% of them listed at one CBI chemical. While 11% of all fracking chemicals were labeled as such. 

So what chemicals are used in fracking? Well, they use different chemicals for different purposes according to rock type and other fracking site specifics. Acids dissolve minerals to help fossil fuels flow more easily. Biocides kill bacteria. Gelling agents help proppants into fractures. Corrosion inhibitors prevent the well’s steel parts from fracking fluid damage. The EPA has identified 1,084 chemicals used in fracking formulas between 2005 and 2013. Many of them are considered hazardous to human health. While the potential human health impacts on most of them are simply unknown as of June 2021. As California scientists could only find complete information about environmental and health risks available for one-third of fracking chemicals used in their state drilling operations. As for proppants, sand is the fracking industry’s favorite, particularly “frac sand” containing high purity quartz with its round shape, uniform size, and crush resistance. A single frack operation can truck thousands of tons of this stuff with 70% of this stuff coming from the Great Lakes region, particularly in Wisconsin and Minnesota which doubled their sand mines between 2005 and 2013. 

As fracking charged ahead between the mid to late 2000s to the early Tens, research into how safe it is for human health and the environment hasn’t kept pace. Many questions remain about the process’ dangers. While mounting evidence raises serious red flags about fracking’s impact on drinking water, air pollution, and our climate. In any drilling operation, anywhere from 1.5 to 16 million gallons of water can be used to frack a single well, depending on the type of well and rock formation. Water used in fracking is typical fresh water taken from ground and surface water resources. Although there are increasing efforts to use nonpotable water, some of these sources also supply drinking water. Even at this rate, US frack water consumption is still considered “negligible” compared to other industrial water uses (like cooling coal-fired power plants). And yet, fracking operations can strain resources in areas where freshwater supplies for drinking, irrigation, and aquatic ecosystems are scarce (often becoming scarcer thanks to climate change). Without extensive treatment, water used in fracking is too contaminated to return to its source. So, it’s typically removed from the freshwater cycle and disposed deep underground. 

Because I live in Pennsylvania where it rains all the time during the summer, I didn’t get into the water supply depletion in Deacon Hill. But it’s a key point to consider if you live out in the West where fracking might lead to water shortages and rationing within many communities. And I’m sure the infrastructure to treat the frack water is often nonexistent or inadequate. Nonetheless, water amounts used in frack jobs has grown over time, exacerbating fracking’s effect on water supplies. A Duke University analysis found that while US producers scaled back on installing new wells between 2011 and 2016, frack water usage has surged. For instance, within the already drought-ridden Permian Basin region in West Texas, frack water usage during those years increased by as much as 770%. While the amount of wastewater generated during a well’s first production year increased by as much as 1,440% during the study period. The authors even predicted that some regions could expect local fracking operations’ water footprint to increase by up to 50-fold by 2030. And if you live in the West Texas Permian Basin region, the average fracking job in 2016 used 10.5 million gallons of water. That’s enough to fill about 16 Olympic-sized swimming pools.  

Not only do fracking operations strain water resources, but also risk polluting them as well. Although a 2016 EPA analysis found that while large data gaps and uncertainties make it difficult to fully assess fracking’s impact on drinking water, fracking operations can and do affect water quality. Activities posing the biggest threats include spills, fracking fluid leaks, injecting fluids into inadequately built wells, and poor wastewater management practices. 

Spills and leaks can occur throughout the fracking process, whether during transport of concentrated chemical additives, mixing and pumping fracking fluids along with storage, and transportation and disposal of used fracking fluid and wastewater. Both human error and equipment failure can cause these. According to the EPA, some spills are known to reach surface water resources. An analysis from the agency on 11 state spill reports revealed 151 fracking fluid spills between 2006 and 2012, with nearly 10% of them (ranging from 28 to 7,350 gallons) winding up in creeks, streams, or other bodies of water. For many reasons, it’s difficult to measure the full impact, particularly since the spilled fracking fluid’s chemical makeup may be unknown or poorly described. While the spill’s fracking fluid and impacts aren’t typically studied. We should also keep in mind that natural gas and oil companies are known to cover up many of their accidents so the EPA’s going on the spills the states know about, which may only be a fraction of how many of these happen. 

In any natural gas fracking operation, gas wells must be properly constructed to withstand intense temperature and pressure fluctuations. Otherwise, a well may be damaged, which can possibly result in a gas or fracking fluid leak. For instance, the EPA faulted burst casings (steel pipes used to construct wells) in a 2010 fracking fluid leakage into wells used to monitor water quality in Killdeer, North Dakota. A study of 133 suspected drinking water contamination cases in Pennsylvania and Texas pointed to faulty well construction as the likely reason behind some methane pollution cases. Also, when Atlas and Chevron drilled in my neighborhood, I can remember the drill sites being active for 24/7 during the whole operation. In addition, we should keep in mind that the workers might be poorly trained, probably haven’t slept for hours, and may have to deal with people from different companies. I’m sure faulty well construction happens far more often than most people think.  

Fractured rock formations are another issue as operators can’t control where they occur. When a fracture extends further than intended, it can link up with a naturally occurring fault, other natural and manmade fractures, or other wells. Then it might carry fluids to other geological formations, including potentially, drinking water supplies. A larger concern, according to the EPA, is the lack of data on how close induced fractures are to underground aquifers. Thus, in its 2016 assessment, the EPA couldn’t 100% determine whether fractures could reach underground drinking water resources. Although most fracked rock formations are often thousands of feet away from aquifers, in some cases, fracking can occur within a drinking water resources’ vicinity. While drinking water’s generally shallower than gas underground, there are no geological barriers separating the two. Some private drinking water wells have experienced contamination from methane and other chemicals escaping from surface pits used to store wastewater or from improperly constructed wells. Although it’s difficult to determine the contamination source. 

Each year, fracking operations within the oil and gas industry generates billions of gallons of wastewater, a potentially hazardous mixture of flowback (used fracking fluid), produced water (naturally occurring water released with oil and gas), and any number of naturally occurring contaminants ranging from heavy metals, salts, toxic hydrocarbons like benzene to radioactive metals like uranium. In addition to gas wells, I also live near a toxic waste dump (although that’s further out near Yukon). During the gas boom, the dump stopped taking fracking waste on account of it being too radioactive. Still, this wastewater can enter and contaminate the environment in a variety of ways. This can happen when transported such as in 2015 North Dakota pipeline break that spilled about 3 million gallons of contaminants into a nearby creek. In addition, in Deacon Hill, I point to how wastewater’s stored in aboveground pits that can spill, leak, and emit air pollution. While wastewater treatment facilities don’t have the means to properly handle pollutants found in fracking waste, which can release contaminants into surface water. This was the case in Monongahela. Even recycling wastewater poses a threat, generating concentrated waste products including a by-product called TENFORM (technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material), which must be properly managed. There also must be proper treatment for recycled wastewater for its intended end use. When gas companies don’t fully disclose all chemical contents, this is a challenging process. 

But water contamination isn’t the only thing to worry about in regards to fracking. Air pollution is also a serious problem threatening nearby communities’ health. Significant sources of air pollution are flaring (a controlled burn used for testing, safety, and waste-management purposes), venting (the direct release of gas into the atmosphere), leaking, combustion, and release of contaminants throughout natural gas production, processing, transmission, and distribution. Natural gas mostly consists of a potent greenhouse gas called methane that traps 80 times as much heat as climate change poster boy, carbon dioxide. When gas is flared, vented, or accidentally leaked, it accelerates costly health impacts of climate change. Oil and gas operations like fracking also release numerous toxic air pollutants like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene; fine particulate matter (PM2.5); hydrogen sulfide; silica dust; and nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. When combined, these all produce smog. In rural northeastern Utah, researchers estimated that the amount of smog-forming compounds coming from oil and gas production each year was equivalent to 100 million car emissions. Exposure to these air pollutants can result in a broad range of health effects ranging from mild to severe respiratory and neurological problems, cardiovascular damage, endocrine disruption, birth defects, cancer, and premature mortality. Meanwhile, oil and gas workers face even greater risks from on-site exposure to toxic chemicals and other airborne materials including silica in frack sand, which can lead to lung disease and cancer when inhaled. 

As with other oil and gas operations, fracking involves intense industrial development. With well pads, access roads, pipelines, and utility corridors, you also get intense, round-the-clock noise, nighttime floodlights, and truck traffic. In addition to potentially polluting local water and air resources, this vast web of infrastructure can fragment forests and rural landscapes while degrading important wildlife habitats. Fish die when fracking fluid contaminates streams and rivers. Chemicals in wastewater ponds poison birds. While the intense industrial development accompanying fracking pushes imperiled animals out of wild areas they need to survive. In more arid regions like the west, fracking could mean less water for fish and wildlife as well. Not to mention, fracking can also lead to further disintegration of our already degrading infrastructure. Too many tanker trucks can lead to a small bridge collapse. While most water treatment facilities aren’t adequately equipped to treat fracking wastewater.  

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And yet, working conditions and fracking are only part of the shady shit going on within the natural gas industry within the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. Another facet that has more relevance in my neighborhood is the royalties. When they started drilling, people thought that leasing with Atlas (later Chevron) on the impression the royalty payments would enrich landowners and lift rural economies in the state. But none of that happened while many landowners saw significantly smaller royalty checks than they thought were promised. Sometimes nothing at all. Since 1982, federal law has established that landowners who lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies are entitled to no less than 12.5% of the royalties from sales. However, a 2013 Pro Publica investigation found that oil and gas companies kept billions of dollars out of the hands of private and government landowners through cost and data manipulation. Their analysis of lease agreements, government documents, and thousands of pages of court records show that underpayment was widespread.  

Much of the controversy surrounding royalty money boils down to post-production costs. These are expenses of moving and treating gas through pipeline networks. To cover the costs, drillers may take deductions from royalty checks. Some landowners agree to this. Others negotiate a lease forbidding it. Many sign leases that don’t address it at all. While some leases have vague leases leaving room for gas companies to take deductions, even if the owner objects. And it’s clear many landowners signed leases without fully understanding their implications like you sign the terms of conditions on anything. 

However, some companies deduct expenses for transporting and processing gas. Even when leases have clauses specifically forbidding such deductions. In other cases, they withhold money without explanation for other, unauthorized expenses, and without telling landowners the money’s being withheld. When significant amounts of fuel aren’t sold at all, companies could use it themselves to power the gas processing equipment, sometimes at facilities far away from the land it was drilled from. To keep royalties low, companies may set up subsidiaries or limited partnerships selling oil and gas at reduced prices. Only to recoup the full value when their subsidiary resells it. While the royalty payments are based on the initial transaction. And according to Oklahoma court documents, it’s perfectly legal despite the companies clearly ripping off the landowner. In other cases, companies barter for services off the books, hiding the full resource value to the landowners.  

Making matters more complicated, the gas rights frequently get split into shares, sometimes among as many as a half-dozen companies and get frequently traded. Once they produce the gas, a host of opaque transactions influence how they’ll account for sales and allocate proceeds to everyone entitled to a slice. Chain of custody and share division can be so complex that even America’s finest forensic accountants struggle to make sense of these energy companies’ books. 

The federal government has a whole arsenal to combat royalty underpayment with Department of Interior rules on allowable deductions and employs an auditing agency that that’s uncovered more than a dozen instances of gas companies willfully deceiving them on royalty payments since 2011, recouping more than $4 billion in unpaid fees. Unfortunately, private landowners have many protective mechanisms, who often enter into agreements without regulatory oversight. This leaves them with only two options. Either pay to audit or challenge energy companies out of their own pockets. Although Pennsylvania has passed laws requiring the amount of deductions be listed on royalty payments, as of 2013, it has no laws dictating at what point a sale price must be set and what constitutes as legitimate expenses. In dozens of class action lawsuits ProPublica’s reviewed, landowners claimed they can’t make sense from the expenses deducted from their payments or that companies hide charges. While publicly traded oil and gas companies also have disclosed settlements and judgements in royalty disputes that collectively add up to billions of dollars. Since individual lease language can vary widely while some can date back nearly 100 years, many deduction disagreements boil down to differing interpretations related to the contract’s language. 

Should a landowner in Pennsylvania decide to sue the gas company over royalties, proceed with caution and aim low. As of 2013, courts have set few precedents for how leases should be read and substantial obstacles stand in litigating landowners’ way. Attorneys say that many of their clients’ leases don’t let landowners audit gas companies to verify their accounting. Those allowed must shell out thousands of dollars to do so. When audits reveal discrepancies, many Pennsylvania leases require landowners to submit to arbitration, another exhaustive process also costing up to thousands of dollars. If you’re familiar with workplace abuse and sexual harassment, you probably know that arbitration clauses can also make it more difficult for the lesser party (like the landowners) to band together into a class action lawsuit in order to gain the leverage to take on the more powerful behemoth (like the gas industry). Tunkhannock attorney Aaron Hovan told ProPublica, “They basically are daring you to sue them. And you need to have a really good case to go through all of that, and then you could definitely lose.” Worse, landowners must clear all these obstacles within Pennsylvania’s 4-year statute of limitations. So, if a landowner realizes the company’s ripping them off too late or inherit a lease from an ailing relative who didn’t do their homework, well, they’re shit out of luck. In addition, even if the court finds the gas company liable for underpaying royalties in the state, it has little to fear. Since they’d only owe what they should’ve paid in the first place. Unlike states like Oklahoma, Pennsylvania doesn’t allow for any additional interest on unpaid royalties and sets a very high bar for winning punitive penalties.  

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But what about the economic benefits? Hasn’t natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale been a game changer in Pennsylvania? From my experience, I’d say barely because I didn’t see anyone get rich. Nor I know many people who worked in the gas fields. Besides, an NPR article from this year states that over the last decade, natural gas extraction has had little economic impact in the 8 most active drilling counties in Pennsylvania. In fact, economic growth sharply lagged state and local rates (at 1.7% vs. 10%) despite a sharp GDP rise that exceeded both (55%). Despite gas industry promises of local economies flourishing thanks to fracking, communities largely failed to reap the benefits. Why? Partly because gas companies sourced their labor, materials, and equipment elsewhere. According to a report from the Ohio River Valley Institute, “This extreme disconnect between economic output and local prosperity raises the question of whether the Appalachian natural gas industry is capable of generating or even contributing to broadly shared wellbeing.  And, if it is not, should it continue to be the focus of local and regional economic development efforts?” 

Former DEP secretary John Quigley said the Ohio River Valley Institute report is one of the first to show that the natural gas industry’s investments, like aggregate economic growth, doesn’t always mean more jobs for communities or increased personal income, especially if out-of-staters take many local jobs. He told NPR, “The impact of this industry on local economies has been vastly overstated. It’s been oversold and used as an excuse not to adequately regulate or enforce environmental and public health regulations.” And given how not much economically changed for the better in my own community during the gas rush, I’d have to agree. Despite witnessing wells drilled in my own neighborhood, I hardly know anyone who’s worked on a drilling pad. Nor did many landowners receive much money either. Add the fact I’m quite that the state doesn’t have an extraction tax and it’s very clear where the gas money’s going. And given where much of these companies are based in, I’m sure it’s Texas. 

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Nonetheless, the natural gas industry remains a very powerful force in politics within Pennsylvania. Between 2007 and 2018, the natural gas industry have spent $3 million in political contributions to candidates for statewide office and $69.6 million in lobbying costs. Energy companies have given generously to politicians from both parties which has profoundly influenced state policy and not for the better. It’s not uncommon in the state for regulators and politicians to work for natural gas companies after their jobs are done and vice versa. Marcellus Shale drillers enjoy steadfast support from the state’s Republican-controlled General Assembly, making passage of any legislative measures to rein in them obviously futile. As Republican state legislators have made growth and nurture of the gas industry a priority. They even blocked Governor Tom Wolf’s proposal for a severance tax on gas production and to this day Pennsylvania is the only state in the Marcellus Shale region without such a tax. Although the state does collect a separate impact fee tied to each new well’s development, but that doesn’t exactly cut it.   

 According to state attorney general Josh Shapiro’s grand jury report (no, not that one), state regulators and elected officials have consistently placed the natural gas industry over Pennsylvanians’ well-being throughout most of the first-generation development within the Marcellus Shale region. Shapiro told Penn Live, “It’s David and Goliath. It’s a rural family living next to a huge industry backed by billions of dollars and out-of-state investors, by bought science, by lobbyists and former officials who have amassed so much power that they act as though they are unaccountable.” His report chastised the state DEP over the shale boom’s history for failing to conduct water quality tests in response to citizen complaints, often failing to enforce a “presumption” that oil and gas activity within a certain distance of a home where contamination was proven, and showing long-term bias against issuing violations.  

One case I used in Deacon Hill to illustrate the natural gas industry’s influence in politics and public life is the case of Range Resources and the citizens of Mount Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania (no, not the one where we had Quiz Bowl matches at, of which I need to remind myself). Now out of all the oil and gas companies involved in the Marcellus Shale drilling rush, Range Resources was one of the earliest and best-known contenders and still remains the largest driller in the state. Yet, while EQT can safely put their name on a Pittsburgh Pridefest float and no one would bat an eye (save environmentalists, of course); Range couldn’t get away with that. Probably because it has one of the worst reputations, especially if you’re familiar with its activities in Washington County, particularly in regards to fracking contamination. I mean these people had a judge place lifetime gag orders over discussing fracking on seven- and ten-year-old kids in the Hallowich case. Anyway, Range Resources had drilled some of its first wells in Mount Pleasant Township under permit use zoning, giving them free rein to drill wherever they wanted. Fast forward to 2011, Mount Pleasant wants to adopt conditional use zoning, in which a planning commission and the board of supervisors must approve drilling of all new wells. All because residents complained of wells being near their houses, schools, or medical establishments, places where you don’t want people drilling for gas. Besides, most of neighboring municipalities already used conditional use ordinances to regulate drilling.  

Obviously, Range Resources didn’t like this and threatened to discontinue local operations or sue the Mount Pleasant Township if they didn’t get their way. As decision day approached for the board of supervisors to approve the new ordinance, Range unleashed an all-out PSYOPs-style propaganda campaign through two letters sent to over 300 Mount Pleasant Township leaseholders in a divide-and-conquer strategy to intimidate local officials. As resident Dencil Bachus told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “We are outraged. This is an effort by Range Resources to divide a community on the eve of a decision on an ordinance that affects them directly. It’s an attempt by the company to get what they want rather than operate within the [township government] process. It’s a divide-and-conquer public relations strategy.” Another Mount Pleasant resident told DeSmog Blog, “What’s going on here, it’s kinda like Love Canal. The intimidation from these corporations is astounding to me. I don’t know how they’re allowed to get away with it. I’d like to see them get nailed.” Mount Pleasant Township was far from the only municipality to find itself on the receiving end of Range’s wrath once it decided to assert itself in where the company can or cannot drill within its jurisdiction. And they’ve sued other townships who’ve followed Mount Pleasant’s lead. 

Then there’s the Act 13 debacle. Passed by the General Assembly during Governor Tom Corbett’s term in the early Tens, this was a love letter to the gas industry overhauling oil and gas regulation in their favor. And often at the public’s expense. Act 13 established the following: 

  • Gave the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission power to review local ordinances. This allows energy companies to legally challenge local ordinances that they don’t like through the PAPUC. This process allows state rules supersede local ordinances in regards to zoning. Not to mention, allow municipalities to permit oil and gas development across all zoning areas.  
  • Allowed private corporations engaged in natural gas storage and transportation use of eminent domain on a person’s remaining property without proper compensation (what the fuck?). That is, if the company has a right to the majority of the land. 
  • Instilled a “physician’s gag rule” that prohibited medical professionals from revealing information on fracking chemicals they receive from drilling companies. Thus, this allows doctors to research but if fracking had anything to do with what’s wrong with their patient, they couldn’t tell them.  

From 2012 to 2016, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court would overturn much of the law for various reasons. In 2013, the Court invalidated most of the zoning rules on grounds of violating the state constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment assuring clean air and water for residents.  In 2016, the Court struck down the other two provisions because they’re utterly ridiculous to put in the books anyway. I think a doctor has a right to tell their patient what the hell’s making them sick, fracking or not. 

Even more disturbing is how natural gas companies have cracked down on anti-fracking activists. In Pennsylvania, there’s an organization called the Marcellus Shale Operators’ Crime Committee that allows the gas industry to swap information with local, state, and federal law enforcement about activists, protests, and potential threats. We shouldn’t be surprised since energy companies have a history of suppressing dissent whether over public health concerns, environmental impact, or workers’ rights (looking at you, West Virginia coal companies). Although reports of pipe bombs, charred debris, and gunshots fired at gas sites exist, very few anti-fracking activists have resorted to crime. While most are just law-abiding citizens. And yet, many have been subject to being branded as “ecoterrorists” as well as subject to law enforcement surveillance probes (with assistance by private security firms). One Lycoming County woman had a state trooper stop by her house over her anti-fracking activities. Luckily, she got off with a warning. That same trooper then crossed state lines into New York to accuse another activist of trespassing a gas compressor station site. Nonetheless, law enforcement’s connection to the natural gas industry raises troubling questions on police conduct and civil liberties. Should police use information obtained by private security firms, it can pose a threat to basic constitutional rights and make one ask why law enforcement’s devoting limited resources to tracking environmentalists. Seriously, don’t police have better things to do like track down actual criminals?  

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Thus, my dear reader, the benefits and promised prosperity natural gas companies touted in order to drill into the Marcellus Shale turned out to be the stuff that dreams are made of. In other words, even if it did create jobs or benefit the reasons, those rewards weren’t as great as originally advertised. At least when you consider the high risks involved along with the gas companies’ lack of transparency and public dishonesty. The drilling process isn’t safe for workers as well as the surrounding community and environment. The royalty leases and contracts may not always give the landowner a fair deal. While their influence and campaign contributions make them a powerful force in government and law enforcement regardless of how much they contribute to the local economies, which is nonetheless extremely troubling. And whenever challenged, they will strike through almost any means at their disposal. Take it from me, you can’t trust these gas companies to regulate themselves.  

The Price We Pay for What We Don’t Know 

Disclaimer: this essay contains spoilers from The Lost Women of Ballantine Castle

My newly self-published novel on Amazon titled The Lost Women of Ballantine Castle chiefly centers on the disappearances of undocumented maids dating from the 1980s to the pre-Covid Trump era, the time the story takes place. Almost all of these maids are Hispanic, range from their late teens to their late twenties, worked for a Mrs. Bartlett at either her Ballantine Castle estate or The Commodore Hotel, and all disappeared while leaving the former. Anyway, despite its subject matter mainly focusing on undocumented immigrants and their vulnerable position in American society, I devoted a significant chunk of the story on racial violence against minorities and how little attention it receives in our society both in our history classes and in the media, especially if the victims were poor, had little to no legal standing in society, or in the maids’ case, both.  

However, there’s a critical flashback scene in the novel where a college archives intern at Ballantine Castle named Julia Scarnatti explores some records in a file cabinet where the estate’s curator told her not to open. Naturally, she does. Among her finds consists of a series of photographs dating from the 1920s, many depicting Mrs. Bartlett’s ancestor great-grandmother and her friends torturing and killing her black servants for basically no good reason. Naturally, Julia is horrified such people could commit such brutal acts. Later on, Agent Rashida Owens sees a black minister named Dr. Scott and addresses the matter to him (which her partner Beattie MacKillop found in Julia’s diary during an investigation into her disappearance and murder). Dr. Scott discusses how the Ballantines would engage in an all-too-common practice during the time called lynching and his description is nothing short of horrifying. One chilling passage is as follows: 

“Now I don’t like thinking white people as monsters. But it blows my mind how normal white men and women can live with, participate in, and defend such atrocities to their fellow human beings. Even reinterpret them so they wouldn’t see themselves or be perceived as less than civilized. These people who tortured, dismembered, and murdered our ancestors like this perfectly understood what they were doing and thought themselves as perfectly normal human beings. Few had any ethical qualms about their heinous actions. To them, lynching was the highest idealism in their service to their white race, a triumph of a horrid belief system defining us as less than human. These perpetrators of these crimes were just ordinary folks who’d go to church with their families and believed keeping black people in their place was nothing less than a way of combating a plague that if not checked, would hurt the community’s health and security.” 

So what do lynching black people back in the 1920s have to do with missing undocumented maids in the Trump Era? Well, while some forms of racial violence may fall out of favor due to momentous historical events like the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s to the 1960s, other forms of racial brutality don’t go away so easily. The brutality could also take another form like mass incarceration in connection with the War on Drugs, stand your ground and open carry laws, stop and frisk, the “welfare queen” stereotype, and lingering systematic racial disparities that never get resolved. Not to mention, racial violence extending to people with less legal protection than most Americans, namely the undocumented who are relentlessly demonized by right-wing news outlets as pathological criminals. And yet, they also perform variety of essential low wage work at a pittance in our country while living a very precarious existence prone deportation, family separation, and crime. As many Americans firmly but wrongly believe that undocumented immigrants aren’t supposed to be here and don’t have any rights (which isn’t exactly true).  

Sycamore Springs, Pennsylvania is a fictional city for no such place exists between Erie and State College. While the disappearance of undocumented maids at a Gilded Age era estate from the 1980s to the pre-Covid Trump Era is based on the 400-year-old Bathory child murders in Renaissance-era Hungary and the LaLaurie slave killings in antebellum New Orleans. Black lynchings, however, were an endemic feature during the Jim Crow Era when whites would flat out murder black people just for any excuse just to keep the local blacks in line. Sure, these killings were anti-black terrorism and hate crimes but the white establishment never prosecuted them mainly because local authorities often took part in them. Although whites could also be lynched as well as most famously demonstrated in the notorious Leo Frank case. According to the Tuskegee Institute, about 4,743 Americans were lynched between 1882 to 1968, including 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites. Nonetheless, lynching was white society’s effort to maintain white supremacy in economic and political dominance after the American Civil War during Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Furthermore, lynching blacks was a way to emphasize the Jim Crow social order where whites acted together to reinforce their collective identity along with blacks’ unequal status through acts of violence. And despite being associated with the South, they also occurred in the North as Ballantine Castle entails. According to the great Ida B. Wells while sexual infractions against white women were widely cited, such victims with sexual assault allegations occurred only 1/3 of the time. Instead, the most prevalent accusation related to murder followed by a list of infractions like verbal and physical aggression, spirited business competition (like successfully competing in business against whites), and independence of mind among victims. If you think the infraction list consists of bullshit terms, you’re absolutely right. And tragically as of June 6, 2021, no federal anti-lynching legislation has passed both houses of Congress despite racial violence remaining a serious problem. 

Despite the prominent role lynching played in maintaining white supremacy in the United States during Jim Crow, most white students will never hear about it in their American history class. Until recently, racial violence incidents like the 1921 Tulsa Massacre weren’t even known in the American public consciousness. Only because of shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country. Obviously, American schools don’t teach students about racial violence during segregation because no one wants to see themselves as the bad guy, white people especially. Nor does it paint the US in a positive light. Nonetheless, given how white supremacy is still a major problem in the US within every part of our society, it’s a subject everyone must learn if only to dismantle the systemic racist infrastructure that perpetuates such violence against people of color. Particularly when it comes to police brutality and stand your ground laws. Lynchings may not be as accepted or prolific as they were under Jim Crow, but the legacy is still with us. And it’s important all students know that legacy. 

As I write in the summer of 2021, all over the United States, Republicans are up in arms over the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory and have sought to have such measures banned within their local schoolboards to their state legislatures. The Heritage Foundation has recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ+ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, the free speech debate on college campuses, and alternatives to exclusionary discipline like Broward County, Florida’s Promise Program that some parents blame for the Parkland shooting (instead of lax gun policies that allowed the shooter to easily get them in the first place). The organization claimed: “When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based.”  

With beginnings within the New Left school of American history during the 1970s and 1980s, Critical Race Theory’s crux is that racism is a social construct. Yet, unlike many white people would like to think, racism isn’t just a product of individual bias and prejudice, but also something embedded in systemic policies. Slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow are among the biggies that we learn in American history class. A good example Education Week discusses a 1930s practice of government officials drawing lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often due to the inhabitants’ race. As a result, banks refused to offer mortgages to black people living in these areas. Today, despite facially-race blind policies, these same patterns of discrimination live on. For instance, single family zoning prevents building affordable housing in advantaged, majority white neighborhoods, and thus, undermines racial desegregation efforts.  

Ballantine Castle illustrates this through Sycamore Springs confining their black and Hispanic populations to the Sticks for much of its history, its history of black lynchings, racist law enforcement practices, and federal immigration policies, especially during the pre-Covid Trump era. CRT also has ties to other intellectual currents like works by sociologists and literary theorists studying the links between political power, social organization, and language. While its ideas have since informed other fields like humanities, social sciences, and teacher education. You could also see the same in Ballantine Castle in which Sycamore Springs’ harsh treatment of Latinos by the local police department leads to more undocumented maids disappearing at the titular estate. Mainly because the living undocumented maids are in no position to testify out of deportation fears. Donald Trump’s decision to cancel DACA resulted in FBI agents Beattie MacKillop and Rashida Owens having such a difficult time tracking down Estella Rodriguez in regards to her white roommate’s disappearance and murder. After all, as a Dreamer attending college within a city that’s got a Joe Arpaio-like police chief and a general hostility toward undocumented people among the general white population, Estella has no idea what Trump’s DACA cancellation might mean to her if she talks to law enforcement. So, when the cops and federal agents scramble for her testimony, Estella either shuts herself in her dorm room or runs off. In addition, the Sycamore Springs police department’s inexcusable actions during the white supremacist Charlottesville-style “America First” rally at Liberty Park results in a white counter-protesting student’s death and a heroic priest named Father Anthony Carlisle nearly losing his shit.  

Critical Race Theory states that racism is part of everyday life so white and non-white people who don’t intend to be racist can nevertheless make choices fueling racism. There are plenty of examples in Ballantine Castle, particularly when Rashida Owens breaks up an altercation pertaining to police mistreating a black man outside a Starbucks in Sycamore Springs to her partner, Beattie MacKillop’s dismay. When Rashida climbs back in her car, Beattie glares at her FBI partner and says, “Why must you stop and waste our time?” As far as she’s concerned, they’ve just arrived to the city to investigate a white college girl’s disappearance, an assignment Rashida has clearly expressed doesn’t want to work on. Stopping police from using excessive force on a black man will only delay their investigation. Now Beattie doesn’t intend to be racist here. But she certainly comes across as this and her chiding Rashida over the incident fuels racism as well. Which is exactly the point. 

However, a lot of critics claim that CRT advocates discriminating against white people in order to achieve equity (except it doesn’t), mainly aiming such accusations at theorists calling for policies explicitly taking race into account. Yet, the disagreement fundamentally springs from different conceptions of racism. While popular notions of racism take individuals’ own beliefs into account, CRT emphasizes outcomes and calls for people to examine and rectify them. And no, neutral “color-blind” policies won’t eliminate the America’s racial caste system. Many white people obviously have a problem with this, especially since they mostly don’t want to seem racist. But they don’t want to think about racism whenever Colin Kaepernick takes a knee to protest against police brutality, which they consider as an attack on the flag and the military (except that it’s not). Because white people in general want to live their lives pretending that racism died out in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement (except it didn’t). Since racism is so ordinary that white people benefit from it and their refusal to dismantle the racist status quo and resistance to racist policies makes them complicit in racism. The idea that someone can be racist by doing absolutely nothing is very triggering to say the least. After all, no one wants to be the bad guy. 

Due to CRT’s popular representation in schools being far less nuanced, a recent poll by Parents Defending Education claimed some schools were teaching that “white people are inherently privileged, while black and other people of color are inherently oppressed and victimized”; that “achieving racial justice and equality between racial groups requires discriminating against people based on their whiteness”; and that “the United States was founded on racism.” As a result, much of the current debate chiefly springs not from academic texts, but from critics’ fears that students (particularly white ones) will be exposed to supposedly damaging or self-demoralizing ideas. Doesn’t help that whenever white people hear even a whisper of “white people” and “racism” they can absolutely lose their shit, completely blocking them from hearing anything else. If in their mind, America is the greatest country in the world, any criticism of their beloved country is a personal attack, especially from anyone who’s not white. Sure, they’re fine with “a more perfect union” or “making America great again.” But they can’t handle an entire field of black scholarship based on the idea that their sweet land of the free is inherently racist. And all I have to say to them is tough shit.  

As of mid-May 2021, legislation to outlaw CRT in schools has passed in Idaho, Oklahoma, and Tennessee as well as proposed in various other statehouses. The bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they’ll affirmatively cover, whether they’re constitutional or violate free speech (I’d say yes on the latter two). Could a teacher who wants to talk about state-sponsored racism a la Jim Crow (which prevented blacks from voting or holding office while separating them from white people in public spaces) violate such laws? Although it’s extremely difficult to police what’s taught in hundreds of classrooms, social studies teachers fear such laws could have a chilling effect on educators self-censoring their own lessons out of concern for parent or administration complaints. One Tennessee English teacher notes: “History teachers can not adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents.” The laws might also be used to attack other pieces of the curriculum like ethnic studies or “action civics,” which asks students to research local civic problems and propose solutions.  

In American history, cultural debates have focused on the balance among patriotism and American exceptionalism one end and the exclusion and violence toward Native Americans and African American enslavement on the other. As in our country’s ideals and practices. A current example that’s fueled much of the recent round of CRT criticism is the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which seeks to put slavery’s history and its effects as well as blacks’ contributions to democratic reforms front and center in American history. Nonetheless, we must understand that learning history isn’t always supposed to feel good. There are parts in our history that are downright painful, disturbing, and jarring to know about like slavery, native displacement and genocide, Jim Crow, racial violence, immigration restrictions, Japanese internment, and more. But they’re absolutely necessary to know about so we can grow and rectify such injustices as a society. For the old adage says, “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” If we want to avoid the past’s mistakes and create a better society, then we must teach kids about race and racism. This goes especially for the students whose parents protest against the teaching of the 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory and buy into whatever conspiracy theories or culture war garbage the right-wing media screeds into their heads. Knowing about the past is hard. Not knowing is even harder. The price we pay for what we don’t know could be steep, as we learned from all the police shootings and white supremacist demonstrations. And for too far too long, the price for our collective historical ignorance has been way too high. White people may have the luxury to forget about all the awful legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation. But if they consist of the majority of who we elect into office at every level, it’s time they start as early as possible.