I drove across part of the oil patch this week. I left early Monday morning from Endicott, New York and headed west at a good clip on Intestate 86. By late afternoon, 390 miles down the road, I was in Oberlin Ohio.
Oil patch --- It’s a term of endearment in oil and gas circles that suggests the colloquial charm and Ol’ Boy character of the industry. Unthreatening, familiar, folksy, agricultural, and local … Like a pumpkin patch. It conjures a notion that – contrary to hype -- there’s nothing really new or fanciful about fracking.
Yet, nomenclature aside, there is nothing old-fashion about 21st century shale gas development. The scale of resource alone – take a drive across Devonian ”oil patch” sometime – is a primary distinction. So are the “unconventional” practices that make drawing gas from rock possible. High volume hydraulic fracturing and computer-modeled horizontal drilling have spurred an on-shore drilling boom as dissimilar to yesteryear’s oil patches as Big Ag and ethanol production is to Ma and Pa’s back 40. Even so, regulatory controls on the industry remain stuck in the past – a time prior to regional planning and national hazardous waste disposal laws, when toxic loads were legally disposed of in the ground or injected into rivers.
I drove across portions of the Marcellus and Utica shales that collectively encompass the sub-surface of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland, including many regions that have never before been touched by the extraction industry. The sheer footprint of these resources and others like them throughout the country have increased the number of stakeholders with futures, for worse or better, tied to their development. (For an areal view of the oil patch, check out this video by Peter Saltonstall.)
What will this look like and what legacy will it leave for the next generation? Numbers, information and reports on the Internet have provided a convenient way to extract information on demand, often minus complexity, nuances and noises of real life. But, as editors like to emphasize to reporters, nothing replaces being there. Writing Under the Surface has provided me with an unexpected windfall of information, perspective, and sources that comes with invitations from various stakeholders to speak on the subject. Inevitably this brings me to places where I would not have otherwise gone, and puts me in touch with stories I would not have otherwise seen. This past week I visited with activists at a potluck dinner at the basement of Peace Community Church in Oberlin, Ohio; spoke with a worker on the job at an injection well in central Ohio; and visited an area where wildcatters have begun exploring the Utica shale in western Pa. More on that in my next post.