Once upon a time…
There was a countryside dotted by farms and inhabited by townsfolk and visitors drawn to its down-home quality of life and serene beauty.
But all was not perfect. The farmers were growing poor and their children were growing up and moving away to seek their fortunes elsewhere. One day, strangers showed up. There are riches under the land, they said – vast stores of energy sought by explorers regionally and globally. The prospectors were there to make a deal. They had the knowhow to extract this energy – natural gas -- and offered to pay handsomely for access. The results will be energy and jobs for everybody, they promised. Wealth will once again flow from the land, and governments, schools, churches, and civic organizations will all share in it.
Many of the townsfolk were excited. Others were skeptical. They feared they were getting only a part of the story. Surely there must be some risk of turning their land over to an unfamiliar industry to drill through the water table and extract an explosive gas along with other unknowns…? They deliberated, and the more they deliberated, the further they got from an answer.
This is Chapter 1 of the story unfolding in Ireland, and it ends with another story. Drawn by both the timeliness and timelessness of the issues at hand, a crew from BBC of Northern Ireland flew to JFK Airport this week. From there they drove four hours to northern Appalachia and southern New York state to see firsthand how the shale gas saga has played out five years after it began with a story line similar to reports from County Fermanagh. (With some important distinctions: The state, not landowners, owns rights to oil and gas in the United Kingdom, and although landowners get paid incentives for development, they stand less direct financial gain than their counterparts in the United States.)
The BBC crew found that the outcome to the story over the Marcellus Shale in New York and Pennsylvania varies, sometimes widely, depending on locality and culture. Policy makers in New York, pressed by townsfolk facing the same dilemma as those in Fermanagh and later from a national grass roots anti-fracking campaign, put a hold on shale gas extraction five years ago with no immediate resolution to the conflict in sight. Policy makers in Pennsylvania, a state with a legacy of extraction in both the petroleum and coal industry and a much higher tolerance for enduring related environmental and public health consequences, have encouraged the industry while figuring out how to deal with impacts as they develop, with mixed results.
The BBC report, hosted by Ciaran Tracey, will be aired Tuesday on Spotlight, a BBC TV Current Affairs program. I had the pleasure of meeting the crew from Ireland filming in New York and Pennsylvania. It was lead by producer Maurice May, and he asked me why I thought Dimock had become so well-known globally.
My answer: The story resonates. There is a timeless mystique to the tale of a stranger visiting your home and proffering a deal involving an unknown windfall that will change your life. The various Dimock narratives (told in Under the Surface and End of Country) personify the classic promise of rags to riches and the theme of disillusionment that often accompanies the notion that money will set things right. The civic context in which this story unfolds is also timeless. The security and comfort of small-town life is challenged, changed, buoyed or swamped by global forces and technology. In this case the global force is energy demand and the technology fracking. (These themes are also central to the fictional movie "Promised Land.")
There are other compelling factors at work in Dimock: When the fledgling onshore drilling boom was hot, the story fell under the scrutiny of news teams from New York turning to the unfolding land play in Pennsylvania, and it had no shortage of “good stuff’” on which to build reports: everyday people – seeking no notoriety or office – compelled into activism against multi-national corporations; fights over land and water; and perhaps most compelling, an industry that flatly denied problems while refusing to disclose information, thereby inviting media investigation and public scrutiny. Dimock in particular and the gas story in general has all the things that motivate journalists, plus one more – snowballing grass roots movements influencing outcomes in two states and inspiring the notion that government is motivated and directed by the people, no matter how polarizing the issues.
The moral of the story unfolding in Dimock, County Fermanagh, and countless small towns sitting over large mineral reserves across the word will vary depending on who tells it.
The industry: Free-enterprise plus hard work = wealth and freedom
The activist: Pirates come dressed as landmen.
My own: Don’t look for happily ever after outside of fairy-tales. But there is plenty of inspiration to be found by small town people aspiring to make a big difference.