The mural on Edward Sawicki’s barn is beautiful and terrifying. For a few minutes I stand silent, stunned, trying to figure out what to make of it. I have come here, to the hamlet of Ogonki, in Pomerania, northern Poland, forty-five miles west of the port city of Gdansk, to write about shale gas. Art was definitely not on my agenda.
Yet there is the mural, about a hundred feet in length, painted on the side of the barn, telling a story as sublime as that in any apocalyptic vision by St. John the Divine. Gray storm clouds, heavy as udders, drip large black drops on parched earth. A skeletal palm reaches out for water under a lonely spigot. Filled with green toxic waste, a coffin floats up in the air. And there, in the middle of the scene, stands the source of all evil: a derrick with a gas flare burning on top, luminous like an all-seeing eye.
Painted scrolls unroll from the painted sky, providing an explication in Polish for the uninitiated. We won’t surrender our land in the hands of corporations, one of them reads. Every drilled gas well is poison for our water, reads another. Stop shale gas.
“It was my idea,” Sawicki says, when he sees me staring in awe at his barn wall. “A few artists came to visit my farm, and I told them what I wanted. And so they painted it.”
A burly man in his late thirties, with blue eyes and closely cropped blond hair and a receding hairline, dressed in a plain blue shirt and denims, old unlaced boots on his feet, Sawicki is a cattle farmer who has decided to pick a fight against shale gas development in his region. On his isolated homestead, nestled among bucolic pastures, rolling woodlands, and limpid lakes, he is known locally as one of the most implacable opponents of gas drilling.
I follow him across the yard. Two shiny tractors are parked on the far side. The unhitched plows and trailers are clean. A pile of perfectly stacked logs lies next to a new grain silo gleaming in the noon sun. A large plaque stamped with the flag of the European Union, an organic-farm certificate, is mounted on the outer wall of the living quarters. Somebody loves this place.
Sawicki’s living room is airy and spacious, large windows overlooking a sunlit lawn. Framed icons of Jesus and Mary hang on one of the walls. A large flat-screen Panasonic TV has been mounted across the room. Plush leather-upholstered couches surround a varnished wooden table stacked with sweets and cakes and tea.
“We have to take some snuff first,” he says, grinning, and hands me what looks like a miniature powder horn engraved with a heraldic lion and the word Kaszëbë. “This is a tradition in Kashubia,” he adds. He shows me how to tap out snuff—“cow tobacco,” he calls it—on the back of my hand.
I try a sniff. The pleasant, minty rush in my nostrils takes me aback.
“Welcome to Kashubia.” He laughs.
Kashubia is a small linguistic enclave in Poland with no special administrative status, but which prides itself on a spirit of independence and cultural autonomy. It is the reason why road signage in the area has two spellings, Polish and Kashubian, and why a black-and-yellow Kashubian flag, a pirate twin of the white-and-red one of Poland, flies in the region. The residents of Warsaw like to joke that Kashubs are the country bumpkins of the north. The Kashubs don’t care.
With his rough stubble and piercing in his left ear, Sawicki resembles a buccaneer more than a farmer. Military valor at the Battle of Vienna won his family the estate in 1683, when a local duchess made them gentry and granted them 400 hectares (nearly 1,000 acres) in gratitude for their loyalty and service—in fighting to save Europe from the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Though reduced to sixty hectares (nearly 150 acres) today, the farm somehow survived the chaos of Polish history, the fire of wars and the ice of revolutions, the invasions of Prussians and Russians during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Nazis and Soviets in the twentieth. But, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, there was a new enemy at the door.
In April 2011, the US Department of Energy announced that there were as much as 5.3 trillion cubic meters of shale gas deposits in Poland, enough for 300 years of consumption for the eastern European country. With the prospect that this new fossil-fuel resource could reduce reliance on energy supplies from Russia—Poland’s reviled Slavic relative—hydrocarbon fever swept the country. Even after the Polish Geological Institute and the US Geological Survey reduced the resource estimates the next year by as much as 90 percent, the zealous faith in shale gas remained unshaken.
Shale gas, the official narrative went, would bring in billions of dollars in foreign investments, generate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and maybe one day could make Poland “a second Norway.” Quickly and without much public consultation, the government granted 111 exploration concessions to some thirty international and local gas companies on an area of 35,000 square miles, or about a third of the entire territory of Poland.
Edward Sawicki’s property is on one of the concessions.
Shale gas has unlocked what may be the biggest fossil-fuel rush of the early twenty-first century. It has been called a path to energy independence and industrial revival, less polluting than coal. No other energy topic has garnered so much media attention in the last few years. Companies and politicians and economists have lauded it as a solution to the shrinking reserves of fossil fuels. Studies show there may be hundreds of years of global supply. Most importantly, shale gas is abundant in different geographies, from the US to China to Argentina to Indonesia to eastern Europe. But the global rush for shale gas has also sparked global opposition against it, from both groups and individuals, as environmental problems have come to proliferate at every stage of extraction.
Unlike conventional natural gas, which collects in large underground reservoirs that are relatively easy to tap, the extraction of gas from shale—a rock with very low permeability—requires an invasive technique called high-volume slick-water hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking. After the completion of drilling, slickwater, also known as fracking fluid (a special mixture of several million gallons of water, fine sand, and chemicals) is injected under enormous pressure into a well in order to fissure the shale and release the trapped methane gas.
Of the large amounts of water used in the fracking fluid, about a quarter of it comes back to the surface as “flowback” and brine, bearing not only the original chemicals but also high concentrations of salts, as well as heavy metals and, on occasion, weak radioactivity. Since the byproduct is difficult to treat, it is often pumped into plastic-lined tailings pits or into deep-injection wells underground, though in some cases it is now recycled.
Shale gas drilling also necessitates a high density of wells—clusters of drilling pads pockmarking huge geographical areas. Then, there are new access roads to each pad, impoundment ponds for frack water, compressor stations that burn enormous amounts of diesel fuel, and thousands of miles of new pipelines cutting through woods and fields. And tanker trucks, of course—as many as a thousand tanker-truck trips per well.
The more Sawicki learned about the process of shale gas extraction, the more he came to think of it as his private apocalypse. He read all the articles in Polish he could find on the Internet. He watched Gasland, an Oscar-nominated documentary about shale gas and associated water contamination in the United States. He looked at statistics and academic papers. A bachelor with extra time on his hands, he slowly turned into a self-made expert in the field, ready for a battle. For that was how he conceived of it: an invasion of his family estate by multinational corporations and the Polish government. And for the destruction of his known world, he was not going to receive any compensation, since mineral rights in Poland belong not to individuals, but to the state.
When representatives of the state-owned seismic company Geofizyka visited him in August 2011 to ask to use his private road to conduct geological studies on the land, Sawicki declined permission, even though many of his neighbors had already consented. The visits did not stop, however, as California-based BNK Petroleum, which owned the local concession, joined in the public-relations campaign. Shale gas, they assured him, did not present a danger to his land and water. He was given leaflets and brochures attesting that no toxic chemicals are involved in fracking. It would be just citric acid, one company representative told him, “just like lemon juice.”
“I imagine them sitting at the rig with a juice extractor and pouring lemon juice,” he says, a sarcastic note in his voice. “I guess the chemicals are so harmless that in case of water contamination we will have lemon-flavored water.”
Even though he had explicitly refused to have seismic testing done on his property, he was given an official document, where, in place of his personal signature, somebody had written “oral consent,” giving a go-ahead to the operation.
He was furious. Together with a couple of neighboring farmers and homeowners, he organized an opposition movement. Visiting artists came to paint the mural on his barn. Several rallies took place, most of them with just a few enthusiasts, though others were bigger. In March 2012, about 200 locals showed up at a rally in the nearby village of Klukowa Huta, where a well was being drilled.
Then, after an impromptu blockade of the seismic trucks that had come to his area, Sawicki started receiving anonymous messages on his cell phone. He was accused of being a Russian collaborator, a national traitor. “Go save flamingoes and orcas,” one message said.
In the afternoon, Sawicki takes me for a walk around his pastures. A couple of his cows follow us, like faithful dogs. Although it is the middle of October, the grass is so green it hurts the eyes. Forests of oak and beech and birch form a darker band in the distance. Beyond the forests, beyond our sight, the deep lakes of Kashubia reflect a blue sky.
“Nothing has changed in Poland since communism in terms of human rights and attitude towards common people,” he tells me reflectively. “People have no impact. They might have maybe a bit more money, things are a bit more colorful, but it’s the same political system and there is the same disregard for people.”
His fighting spirit seems on the breaking point. After a year of campaigning against shale gas, he feels tired. Few are paying him any attention now, and some of his neighbors have stopped supporting him. They think shale gas development is doomed to happen, whether they like it or not. Everybody feels intimidated by different factors: the government or the media or the company. His friends ask him, What is the point of opposing the inevitable?
“If we wait to see the full impact of shale gas, it will be too late,” he says. “There will be no life for us.”
We pass a large wooden crucifix by the side of the road, next to a tractor trailer stacked high with hay bales. Sawicki looks at them.
“If you ask me why I am fighting, I’ll tell you. I am a simple man, and my philosophy is to leave the slightest trace possible on this Earth.”
Bradford County, Pennsylvania
Morning fog floats over the valley of the Susquehanna River like a twin, ghostly river. Driving in my rented Nissan Tiida over a long, concrete bridge, I feel like I am in a submarine, water and air blending into a uniform milky white. The early November chill has frosted the forests on both banks, making them look like eerie, albino coral reefs.
My car climbs up a winding, two-lane country road, and the fog begins to thin out. Blue patches of sky flash over as I emerge into another world: the Allegheny Plateau of Bradford County, in northern Pennsylvania.
Green rolling hills open up on all sides, a patchwork of forests, pastures, and freshly tilled earth. Here and there, the tall silos and red barns of dairy farms, scatterings of cows grazing around them, break up the geometric patterns of the land. Weathered gravestones rest in the grass next to clapboard churches.
But deeper into the countryside, other shapes begin to materialize—one, five, ten—shattering the pastoral. Huge tanker trucks and pickups with Texas and Arkansas plates whoosh up and down the country roads. Large white pipes with complex systems of valves run along the ground, cutting straight through fields and woods. I see rectangular ponds, as big as swimming pools, filled with water. Every mile or so, there are gravel lots the size of football fields, with rows of yellow containers and white storage tanks, resembling a gigantic circuit board. When I turn off the engine of my car for a second, I can hear a buzz, a hiss: the endless exhalation of methane.
Shale gas drilling pads. Impoundment ponds. Pipelines. They are everywhere.
The Marcellus Shale, a 400-million-year-old rock formation underlying parts of Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, and Ohio, about 5,000 to 8,000 feet underground, is believed to be the biggest unconventional gas field in the nation and one of the biggest in the world. Though it was known to contain gas since at least the 1930s, only in the twenty-first century, with the development of slickwater hydraulic fracturing in combination with directional drilling (a method allowing for drilling along a horizontal path, increasing the production area), did it become economically viable to exploit it. In 2008, Terry Engelder, a professor of geosciences at Penn State University, calculated that the Marcellus may contain as much as 363 trillion cubic feet of gas, enough to cover American natural gas consumption for as much as fourteen years. Others—including the US Geological Survey—came up with significantly lower estimates, but all of the experts agreed that the Marcellus held remarkable shale gas deposits.
The boom was on.
Several dozen domestic and international companies swooped in on Pennsylvania in hopes of extracting gas from the Marcellus. The number of drilled wells grew exponentially. By the end of 2012, four years into the rush, there were more than 6,000 wells, with tens of thousands more in the planning stages. Thousands of miles of pipelines and gathering lines were laid to deliver the gas to metropolitan markets on the East Coast, while new compressor stations, like behemoth hearts, kept the gas moving through the steel veins.
This was not the first fossil-fuel fever in the state: In 1859 the first commercial oil well in the United States was drilled near Titusville, Crawford County, by Edwin Drake. Then there was coal extraction, one of the biggest mining operations in the world, giving Pennsylvania the nickname of “the coal state.” The shale gas boom, however, has proved to be an entirely different enterprise, fully decentralized, not confined to industrial zones or areas of intensive development like in the past, but dispersed among residential communities, next to houses, farms, schools, retirement homes, churches, cemeteries.
Bradford County—until that point a quiet, agricultural community of 63,000 in northern Pennsylvania—suddenly became the economic epicenter of the Marcellus, the sweet dry gas under the farmlands proving irresistible for the tastes of companies. Nearly 2,000 shale gas wells have sprung up here, making it the most drilled county in the state. In 2010, the industry invested about $2.4 billion in Bradford, larger than the total size of its economy in 2009, which was $1.8 billion. So far, local landowners have received $160 million in leases and royalties.
But as money began to flow, so did pollution.
For the shale gas industry statewide, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has recorded more than 3,000 violations. While many violations are administrative in nature, numerous others involve gas migration, water contamination, and well blowouts. Chesapeake Energy, the company with the most substantial local presence, was fined $900,000—the largest environmental fine in the state’s history—for allowing gas to seep into the water of sixteen families in the county in 2010. Later, a blowout of a Chesapeake well caused large amounts of fracking fluids to spill into the local Towanda Creek. The industry itself calculated in 2003 that about 6 percent of all new wells experience a problem with the cementing or casing (the pipes in the borehole), a serious issue which could lead to dangerous substances leaking into the water table. The county has thus far seen more than 600 shale gas-related violations.
Today, temporary water storage tanks—known as “water buffalo”—sit in many front yards, where groundwater has been contaminated by drilling activities. Expensive gas filtration systems have been installed in house basements to make well water safe for human and animal consumption. None of these steps were supposed to be necessary. But, for many local residents, they are a way of life now. The idyll seems to be over: Bradford County, Pennsylvania, has become a land under siege.
The farm of Carol French is the main bastion of resistance, even though it looks no different than any other farm in Bradford County: a two-story white clapboard house next to an assembly of red barns and grain silos, agricultural machinery and implements scattered around. On a gently sloping pasture in the back, a few hens and cows take in the last warmth of the season.
I pull into a small gravel lot and walk to the front porch, where the landowner is already awaiting me. A golden retriever barks feebly at me, wagging its tail.
“I’m glad you didn’t get lost,” French says and gives my hand a strong shake. “Some people have difficulty finding my place.”
The forty-nine-year-old French has a ruddy round face and wavy dirty-blond hair, stern light-blue eyes behind a pair of spectacles: a farmer with a pinch of a schoolteacher. She wears old blue jeans and a T-shirt stamped with a snowy mountain peak and a lonely log cabin in the foreground. Sisters Quilt Show, it says.
She invites me to sit down at a round table in the kitchen. Around us, mounted on the walls, are taxidermied deer heads and framed deer paintings. The chandelier above the table is made of interlaced stag antlers, like a crown of thorns. In the far corner of the adjacent living room I can see a cabinet holding several hunting rifles.
“My sister got murdered by her partner in a domestic dispute recently,” she tells me, as if this is the most natural way to open a conversation with a new guest. “It was a very abusive relationship, and I didn’t realize how bad it had all been until it was too late.”
I sit silent for a few seconds. “I’m sorry,” I manage to mumble.
“Farmers and gas companies are in the same kind of abusive domestic relationship,” she finally says. “That’s how I see it.”
Her rocky relationship with the industry began in 2006, when she and her husband leased their mineral rights to a gas company, a one-time payment of $85 per acre on a total of 160 acres. It was a period of excitement and optimism, as they hoped that the extra cash would give a much-needed boost to the dairy operation and help the family cope with the habitually low milk prices. There were promises of new jobs, new roads, and maybe additional money from royalties, if a well was drilled on their property. Everyone in the region talked of the new gas bonanza, the airy invisible gold, which would turn farmers into “shaleionaires.” Shale gas was the solution to all the problems of Bradford County; many residents, including the Frenches, welcomed companies with open hands.
The first shale gas well near the French family farm was drilled in December 2010, followed by two more, then five more. Their property did not get a lucky well—initially a big disappointment—but something else happened instead: On March 15, 2011, their water “turned.” From a pure, transparent liquid, the tap started spewing a milky white mixture. When French left the water to settle, it formed a layer of sand at the bottom with a greenish moss-like substance over it, then later stabilized to the consistency of gelatin. During her twenty years on the farm she had never seen or experienced anything like it.
“This is what my water looked like at the time,” she says and hands me a jar with a lid on top. I shake it up, and it turns the same pearly white color she described.
Soon after the water went bad, the whole family started experiencing skin rashes—French lifts up her arms to show me small red splotches on her pale skin. Some of the cows had similar dermatological issues. Then, in October 2011, her twenty-three-year-old daughter suddenly fell sick with high fever, diarrhea, and acute stomach pains, losing ten pounds in a week. At the hospital the doctors determined that she had an enlarged spleen, liver, and right ovary, but they could not find a cause for the ailments. When a few neighbors (whose water had also “turned”) began suffering similar health problems, French decided that, whatever the origin of the illnesses, it was time to send her daughter away to a healthier environment—where she quickly improved.
“At one meeting we were told that we all, as Americans, need to accept shale gas and make a sacrifice for the energy independence and prosperity of our country,” French tells me, as I sit across the table from her. “But why should we be the sacrificial lambs? At the end of all this, we got to see our farm lose much of its value. We are losing our milk market, and probably I won’t be able to sell our cows. We lost our health. We lost our daughter,” she says, her sentences becoming more clipped. “We lost.”
Carol French would not accept defeat. She joined forces with a neighbor, Carolyn Knapp, an organic dairy farmer who lives a quarter of a mile up the road and who had also come to experience firsthand the effects of shale gas development. Together they turned into vocal opponents of fracking—Bradford’s unlikely dissidents.
The two women began spending hours in the courthouse of Towanda, the county seat, where they leafed through thousands of pages of deeds, leases, statistics, directional drilling logs—trying to find as much information as possible about the gas-industry practices. They read through all the studies and documents they could track down and contacted preeminent experts in the field. Soon, the two were touring small communities in Pennsylvania and New York, giving PowerPoint presentations, writing essays for local publications, telling their stories to the media. Some farmers in the area called them dismissively “the two environmentalists,” but they did not seem to care. Shale gas development was too big of a juggernaut to stop, but they would at least educate people about the dangers from their point of view.
Watching YouTube videos of their lecture tours, one is struck by their wide-ranging knowledge of the legal, economic, and environmental aspects of shale gas development—two farmers from rural Pennsylvania turned shale polymaths. They discuss technical subjects such as “mechanic’s lien” and “subordination” and “attornment agreements.” They talk about the social effects of the local gas boom—the increase in crime, rental prices, traffic accidents, as well as the strain on emergency services. They compare job creation in the gas and renewable-energy industries. They say a few good words about shale gas extraction too, but, from their point of view, the negatives far outweigh the positives.
“This house is where I raised my babies,” French tells me, when I ask her about her motivation to fight shale gas development. “This is my home, where I made my memories. That’s where your heart is. In my mind, it is worth fighting for.”
The earthquake hit Youngstown, Ohio, at 3:04 in the afternoon of December 31, 2011. Windowpanes rattled, furniture shook, plates fell off kitchen shelves. Glass ornaments were flung off Christmas trees and shattered on impact. Anxious residents ran out of their houses, carrying their young children. In stores, post-holiday shoppers froze in panic.
Then the shaking stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. Everything was quiet again.
This was the eleventh earthquake that year, in a place that had never recorded a single one previously. What was happening? Susie Beiersdorfer, a geologist at Youngstown State University, who was making a poster for an anti-fracking protest when the quake hit, thought she knew the answer.
Three months and another earthquake later, when the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) came out with its preliminary report, Beiersdorfer’s suspicions were confirmed. The recent spate of seismicity in Youngstown had all occurred around the Northstar 1 Class II deep injection well, located between the Mahoning River and Interstate 680, about a mile northwest of the city center. In operation since December the previous year, it had been used for the disposal of production waste—flowback and brine—coming from shale gas development in neighboring Pennsylvania.
As the brine was pumped down under high pressure, almost 10,000 feet underground, in basement Precambrian rock billions of years old, it lubricated naturally occurring geological faults, which slipped and induced earthquakes, ranging from 2.1 to the largest one (4.0) on New Year’s Eve. A similar injection well (one of currently 192 in Ohio) contributed to a 4.5 magnitude quake in Ashtabula, in the northernmost part of the state, in January 2001, but that had been seen at the time as an isolated event. Now, with the shale gas boom in full swing and the rising demand for the so-called Class II deep injection wells—the standard industry practice for disposal of oil and gas waste in porous rock formations thousands of feet underground—earthquakes were becoming more common.
“It was a real wake-up call for a lot of people in Youngstown. It shook them up, literally, and became a catalyst for the movement against shale gas development and waste disposal,” Beiersdorfer, one of the chief organizers of that movement, tells me, as we walk around the Northstar 1 injection well. It was here that seven activists had been arrested in November 2011 during a protest, having demanded the closure of the well a month before the largest earthquake hit. The site has since been shut down by order of ODNR. Fourteen storage tanks remain locked behind a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, two oversize tires from a loader blocking road access.
Susie Beiersdorfer knows about fossil fuels. In the late 1910s or early 1920s her grand-father moved from West Virginia to California, where he worked on oil rigs and later started his own oil-tool service company, which her father eventually inherited in the 1950s. It sold drilling bits and core barrels to the oil and gas industry, as well as equipment for well stimulation, the early name of hydraulic fracturing. The family lived in a house on a bluff overlooking the Kern River Oil Field near Bakersfield, in the San Joaquin Valley, one of the oldest and largest oil fields in the United States. As a kid, she would ride in the back of her father’s pickup, as he made his daily deliveries to drillers, and later helped him with the accounting side of the business. Instead of fairies and giants, her childhood world was populated by derricks and pumpjacks pasturing among the rocky dreamscapes of California.
She was planning on becoming a petroleum engineer like her father, but eventually her love of rocks prevailed. She took a degree in geology and started a job as a mud logger, examining and keeping track of the geological strata during oil and gas drilling, living in trailers next to drilling sites. Her husband, Raymond Beiersdorfer, also a geologist, worked in oil exploration for Gulf Oil in the Bakersfield region. After short stays in Australia and Canada, the two of them settled in Ohio in 1993, where he joined the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Youngstown State University.
Wandering around Susie and Raymond Beiersdorfer’s home, a beautiful three-story brick house on a quiet street in central Youngstown, it is impossible not to be struck by their passion for geology—science books are everywhere. Even the first names of the twin daughters—Crystal and Rochelle (French for “little rock”)—carry the stamp of their parents’ preoccupation. For a few years in the late 1990s, Raymond used to spend his summers as a researcher at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, where he worked on developing synthetic soils for growing crops in space, until funding for the project was canceled. Between semesters, he takes his university students on geology trips to China.
Now the family’s love of rocks has been transformed into a battle against hydraulic fracturing and deep injection wells. Having seen their fair share of oil and gas extraction, with the associated environmental risks, the Beiersdorfers have become fossil-fuel apostates. Large placards, pitched in the lawn in front of their house, clearly announce the views of the owners: Don’t Frack Our Water and We All Live Downstream. Studies on the dangers of fracking lie scattered around the house. A room above the garage serves as Susie’s office and a workroom for making fliers and protest posters.
Beiersdorfer has become the main engine behind the anti-fracking movement in Youngstown, the child of the oil world waging a battle against her roots. Fifty-four years old, with silky white hair and a pale, earnest face, wearing a pair of peace-sign earrings and photochromic glasses, she has the traces of California’s 1960s imprinted all over her, yet she is firmly grounded in the twenty-first century. Now an assistant professor at Youngstown State University, she has been teaching online classes for the past six years, introducing students to the basics of geology.
“I feel that when people learn more about the geology of the Earth, they can appreciate it more and become better stewards,” she tells me as we sit in her kitchen, what she and her husband like to call “the frack-free zone.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, Youngstown, nestled in Ohio’s Mahoning Valley, was one of the three largest steel manufacturers in the nation with dozens of foundries, their fat smokestacks belching black plumes into a leaden sky. People here used to joke that the day you didn’t have to sweep soot off your porch was the day that spelled trouble.
That day came on September 19, 1977, locally known as Black Monday, when 4,100 steel workers at the Campbell plant of Youngstown Sheet & Tube, the city’s biggest employer at the time, were laid off. The big steel mills had been struggling for years, but by the early 1980s they began shutting down, one by one, as automation and cheap imports drove the industry to faraway parts of the world. Since then, more than 50,000 people in the steel and related industries in the greater Youngstown area have lost their jobs, and the city’s population has shrunk from 139,000 in 1970 to less than 67,000 today. Thousands of vacant properties and lots stand silent witnesses to a human tragedy. Bruce Springsteen, the American elegist par excellence, wrote about the city’s decline: Here in Youngstown, here in Youngstown, my sweet Jenny I’m sinkin’ down, here darlin’ in Youngstown.
Driving with Beiersdorfer, I can see the skeletons of the dead industry. Brownfields and hollowed shells of factories litter the landscape. Boarded-up houses, covered with graffiti, blight the neighborhoods. Meth addicts and drunks roam the streets. The heavy soot has disappeared from the air, but the streams and soil in the area are still full of industrial poisons and heavy metals.
“Youngstown has a long history of industry coming here, exploiting the resources, polluting the land and then leaving, without leaving any structure behind for citizens who live here,” she says, as we cross the bridge over the muddy current of the Mahoning River, where no one dares to swim.
Despite the environmental dangers, many residents in Youngstown feel that the shale gas industry could revitalize the region and provide much-needed jobs. On the bank of the Mahoning River, some 2,000 feet from the Northstar 1 injection well, there is already proof: A new $650 million steel mill, employing 350 workers, was recently built by the French company Vallourec—the first big manufacturer to open doors in the city since the economic collapse three decades ago. The mill makes steel pipes for the shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and for the budding extraction in Ohio’s Utica Shale, another giant gas field under Youngstown and eastern Ohio. In the three counties surrounding the city—Mahoning, Trumbull, and Columbiana—there are already seventy-nine drilled or permitted shale gas wells. Pickup trucks—the main vehicle of choice for itinerant drillers—fill the parking lots in front of local motels. Welcome Oil & Gas Industry reads a sign in front of a striptease club.
Beiersdorfer admits that shale gas could provide much-needed employment for the city, but she fears it may prove another short-lived dream, leaving the environment, just recovering from the sad legacy of the steel industry, even more devastated than before. In Pennsylvania, a mere four years into the gas boom, companies have already started to leave, scared off by overproduction and the depressed gas prices on the market.
“There is a lot of hype about the shale gas industry bringing the economy around,” she says. “A lot of people like to say that by putting a watch on the industry we are killing any hope for prosperity in the area. But while there may be a job increase, those are not permanent jobs. We need a sustainable industry, something like the manufacturing of solar panels and wind turbines. We need to get off the fossil-fuel hamster wheel. Shale gas, to me, is a classic boom-and-bust.”
After more than two years of research into hydraulic fracturing and injection wells, she has become fully convinced of the dangers of both to groundwater supplies. At the end of November 2011, after the first series of earthquakes, she and a couple of other Youngstown residents started a movement against shale gas production and waste disposal in the city limits. After the New Year’s Eve quake, they created Frackfree Mahoning Valley. The group, a core of about thirty activists, has since organized dozens of protests, educational events, and community forums, and has set up websites as a counterweight to the pervasive public-relations campaigns funded by gas companies. Most of the protests have been small, usually a few dozen people. (After the big earthquake, a meeting organized by the Youngstown City Council attracted more than 500 concerned residents, including their group.) Using social media, they have coordinated with organizations from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
“There’s a lot of money and lobbyism on the industry side, but we are just a group of citizens, putting in our own time and money. Our main goal is to try to educate people and point them to resources,” Beiersdorfer tells me. “I’m not naïve enough to think we’re going to wean ourselves off of petroleum products right now. So many people drive cars, heat their homes with natural gas. Everybody’s got plastic around them. We don’t claim to be creating any sort of big change, but I think that by shining a light on the industry, they would have to be a bit more cautious than they’d like.”
For one meeting between industry and local legislators, the group printed oversize mockup checks with the amount of campaign contributions that members of the US Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources had received from oil and gas companies. $340,684 was one amount; $696,940 read another.
When the Youngstown City Council voted to allow officials to lease city land for shale gas extraction—including parks and golf courses—Beiersdorfer and her group started a petition to put on the ballot a community-based ban on hydraulic fracturing within city limits, similar to a measure that Pittsburgh and a few dozen other places across the country had passed.
“It is unacceptable that local residents can’t say where companies can drill for oil and gas,” she tells me. “It’s not only about fracking, but about our community. It seems that now local people have fewer rights than corporations.”
The next day, brisk and cloudy, Beiersdorfer and I drive to Meander Creek Reservoir. About seven miles west of Youngstown, it supplies drinking water to more than 220,000 people. No boating or swimming or fishing is allowed. Yet, at the end of 2012, a gas company, Consol Energy, started drilling a shale gas well in the protection area of the reservoir, some 150 feet from a creek that empties directly into the main body of water.
On our drive, billboards parade their two-dimensional worlds. The Answer to Foreign Oil: American Natural Gas, an ad for Chesapeake Energy boldly proclaims. Keep Our Community Safe & Healthy. Stop Fracking! another billboard, sponsored by an environmental group, counters. Like in the rest of the world, the war over shale gas rages full force here, dividing people, or uniting them in strange and unlikely alliances. Politicians, businesspeople, economists, geologists, engineers, environmentalists, movie stars, journalists, and citizens of all stripes have all joined in the fray, each with his or her own view on the subject. It has turned into a battle of visions, of clashing ideologies, over the global future of energy, water use, and the climate risks of continued dependence on fossil fuels.
Soon, the bleak strip malls and blighted neighborhoods of Youngstown give way to the mixed woods of Meander Creek Reservoir, beech and pine, maple and birch. We pass over a bridge, an endless expanse reflecting the orange afternoon light streaming through the clouds. It feels almost surreal, moving so imperceptibly from a human landscape of post-industrial rubble into the wild growth of nature.
After a few minutes of driving through fields and forested country roads, we reach a concrete lot, pickups and people hurrying around. A tall drilling rig, its latticework painted yellow and white, rises right in the middle. It is the totem pole of the underworld.
Vama Veche, Romania
“Are you here for the protest against shale gas?” the middle-aged woman at the window counter on the Romanian border asks me. Dressed in a navy-blue blazer, with henna-reddish hair, sitting behind a bulky desktop computer, she looks like the perfect bureaucrat.
I nod my head.
Her stern face softens into a wide, friendly smile.
“I am one of the organizers of the movement against shale gas,” she says. Then she places her handbag on the desk and proceeds to take out a Romanian tricolor ribbon and a campaign button that says No to Shale Gas, in Bulgarian. “I’ll be wearing these tomorrow,” she tells me, looking me straight in the eye.
It is a little past midnight on May 1, 2012, and I have just driven up the western coast of the Black Sea, crossing from Bulgaria into Romania. A friend of mine had told me about an anti-fracking protest planned in the tiny seaside village of Vama Veche, about three miles from the border. I decided to see it for myself.
“I’ll be collecting signatures at the large army tent on the beach. You can’t miss it,” she says and hands me a receipt for the road toll. “I’ll see you there tomorrow.”
Vama Veche (“old customs point”), in the Dobrogea region of southeast Romania, was the capital of Romanian counterculture during the brutal communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. Intellectuals and hippies would come here to escape—in their imaginations, at least—the country’s oppressive political regime, renting rooms from peasants and fishermen, pitching tents on the famous nude beach. After Ceausescu and his wife had been shot by a firing squad during the Romanian revolution of 1989, Vama Veche maintained its free spirit, escaping the atrocious residential developments that sprung up along other parts of the Black Sea coast. Romania has no Woodstock, but it has Vama Veche.
When I enter the village, a party is already in full swing. The main street, leading down to the sandy beach, is packed with young people—rockers, punks, hippies, goths, metal-heads, bohemians. A gathering of prodigals. The smell of cheap alcohol and pot wafts in the breeze, bars and cafés playing a cacophonic mashup of songs. A skull-and-bones flag flies over the wooden shed of La Pirati, a drinking hole with tricked-out choppers parked outside. Intoxicated teenagers wait in tangled lines in front of brightly lit-up gyro joints. One bakery is open for business at this late hour, selling kürtoskalács, Hungarian cinnamon pastries sprinkled with powdered sugar. There is something for everybody here.
Down on the beach, where the Black Sea laps at the cold sand, dozens of bonfires are burning, people sitting around them, wrapped in woolen blankets, swigging beer and playing guitars. Away from the crowds, couples are making out, double silhouettes against the shiny backdrop of crimpled, moon-lit water.
On the far end of the beach, some two hundred people dance around a wooden mockup of a derrick, a dozen hand-held flares illuminating the night in eerie crimson. It looks like a tribal ritual. Rage Against the Machine’s “Guerilla Radio” is blasting from powerful speakers. The large circle sways to the rhythm, back and forth, left and right, banners and placards raised above the sea of bobbing heads.
It is our own nature and the decision is ours.
We are 60% water and don’t want to be poisoned.
Romania does not want Chevron.
Then somebody picks up a chant in English.
“Get the fuck out, Chevron! Get the fuck out, Chevron! Get the fuck out, Chevron!”
After a few minutes of commotion, the circle slowly reconfigures itself into a line. About fifty of the most dedicated protestors begin marching down the beach and then up the main street. The crowds part in front of them.
“Get the fuck out, Chevron! Get the fuck out, Chevron! Get the fuck out, Chevron!”
An anti-fracking rally on the Black Sea beach at one in the morning! A few onlookers, not knowing what is happening but dimly recognizing the expletives, drunkenly take up the chant. A television crew, tipped off about the event, follows the protestors, cameras rolling.
Tomorrow, Romania will know about this.
In 2010, the American energy giant Chevron, searching for new shale plays beyond the United States, looked into eastern Europe. Several preliminary studies had suggested that Poland, Ukraine, Romania, and Bulgaria held the greatest promise, and the company quickly secured huge swaths of land. In Romania, it was awarded four onshore exploration concessions—three in the Dobrogea area of southeast Romania (including Vama Veche) on a total area of 670,000 acres; and another one, 1.6 million acres, in the northeast, by the provincial town of Barlad. With the active support of the US Department of State and its newly founded program The Global Shale Gas Initiative (since renamed into the more obscure and less alarming Unconventional Gas Technical Engagement Program), Chevron hoped for smooth sailing in the former communist bloc.
What looked like a done deal, however, quickly began to unravel for the company. In January 2012, after a massive environmental campaign, several thousand Bulgarians in twelve cities marched against shale gas development, forcing the government to institute a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing—the second one in Europe after that in France—and revoke Chevron’s exploration licenses. Inspired by the example of their southern neighbors, about 5,000 Romanians in Barlad came out into the streets in March, demanding a similar moratorium. Although the Romanian government never officially voted on a moratorium, it halted exploration temporarily and promised to proceed with greater caution and only after further assessment of the associated risks. In early 2013, however, Romanian prime minister Victor Ponta stated that he would allow “preliminary exploration of the reserves.” In spite of Ponta’s reversal, Bulgaria and Romania, viewed often as two of the poorest and most corrupt members of the European Union, were proving tougher to crack—and frack—than anyone had imagined.
The next morning after the village party, I see Rodica Cruceanu, the woman from customs, standing by a large green army tent on the beach and collecting signatures for a petition for “the interdiction of the exploration, development, and exploitation of perimeters of gas hydrocarbons through hydraulic fracturing.” After her night shift ended, she didn’t have enough time to nap, so she went home to take a shower and then came directly to the makeshift campaign headquarters. Her goal is to collect enough signatures to make a parliamentary commission look into the issue and, hopefully, vote on an official moratorium on fracking.
The tent, on loan from the local fire department, is a veritable carnival. A big colorful banner with the words Lasati Vama Verde—Leave Vama Green—has been affixed over the entrance. Painted on square pieces of Styrofoam are various other slogans: Stop the Exploitation of Shale Gas; Save the Sea; Sign the Petition. Anti-fracking leaflets and carefully catalogued petition sheets, alphabetized by the signatory’s place of residence, have been laid out on a small wooden table.
Cruceanu has been transformed. Gone is the state worker’s navy-blue blazer. Instead she wears motley-striped shalwar pants and a purple shirt with a generous neckline, bulky sunglasses, and a flower-patterned scarf draped over her head to keep the blistering sun away. As she vowed the previous night, she has the Romanian tricolor ribbon and the Bulgarian button No to shale gas pinned to her bosom. It was Bulgarian activists who had first supplied her with information and materials on the dangers of fracking.
Until the spring of 2012, when the national media broke the news that Chevron had won several gas concessions in Romania, Cruceanu did not know much about the issue. She was forty-three years old, a government worker sitting behind a counter at the Vama Veche customs, dealing with the road toll for vehicles entering Romania. She had a degree in economics and had previously worked in the hotel and restaurant business. She had never in her life taken part in any environmental campaigns, except once, when she helped with the collection of signatures for protection of endangered Black Sea dolphins. She had moved to Vama Veche twenty years before to enjoy a quiet and leisurely life by the seaside. Nothing was further away from her mind than hydraulic fracturing.
Then she saw Gasland and was horrified. Using Facebook, she got in touch with activists, who gave her additional resources. Knowing some English from her stint in the tourism industry, she read studies about the negative effects of shale gas on communities in the United States, about the cases of groundwater contamination, the chemicals injected deep underground, the difficulty of dealing with the flowback and brine, the emissions coming from wells and compressor stations.
“I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute! This here is my country, my home, the place where I’m raising my child,’” she tells me when she manages to take off a minute from campaigning. “If I don’t fight, who will? Someone has to care for this Earth, if we are to survive. We shouldn’t repeat the same mistakes that others have done.”
Together with her friend Paul Iurea, a local investigative journalist, Cruceanu set up a campaign against fracking. They started distributing leaflets to their neighbors, but the response was tepid. Some would say that it was good business. Others would just not listen, too preoccupied with their lives. We will all have to die from something someday, the cynics responded.
Despite such indifference, she kept on going. Soon, her community of Facebook friends confronting similar issues around the world was closer to her than her own neighbors. She felt she was part of something global, much bigger than herself.
“Water is our life, and we can’t afford to destroy it. It’s more important to us than a few jobs,” she says. “We can easily find another energy source, but we can’t find more water. I’m fighting for my child and for all the children whose parents are not realizing what is happening.”
The turnout at the army tent is remarkable. Scores of vacationers from all over Romania, most of them in their twenties and thirties, flock to the table to sign the petition. Men in swimming trunks; women in flimsy bikinis. Punks, rockers, metal-heads. A few elderly couples. Cruceanu and her journalist friend Iurea, a bald-headed man in an embroidered cotton tunic, the indispensable tricolor ribbon and anti-fracking button pinned on his breast, can hardly keep up with the demand. A few activists from other places in the county have come to help them, but even they are overwhelmed. By the end of the campaign drive at Vama Veche, more than 10,000 people sign the petition—not enough to have it reviewed by parliament, but impressive nonetheless.
“I feel truly happy today,” Cruceanu says to me with a huge grin, while handing out leaflets and mineral water to passersby. “The reaction from people is wonderful. Some activists like to fight fracking with dancing and songs. But we can only really change our laws through official petitions.”
At that moment her cell phone rings—“The House of the Rising Sun” by The Animals—and she picks up. It is her teenage daughter.
I walk away from the tent, down toward the sea. The fine sand feels hot, almost searing under my bare feet. Beachgoers have spread out colorful beach towels, each one a little pad of comfort.
When I step into the surf, water and foam crash against me, a slight undertow tugging me in. Shells and pebbles lie scattered under the surface, soon to be crushed into sand. Millions of years ago, single-cell creatures lived and died in primordial oceans, their remains buried at the bottom, turning slowly into gas. Millions of years from now, nobody will remember us.
Reporting for this article was funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, Calkins Media, and The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.