280 pages, 6 b/w photos, 2 b/w illustrations, 4 maps
Running from southern West Virginia through eastern Ohio, across central and northeast Pennsylvania, and into New York through the Southern Tier and the Catskills, the Marcellus Shale formation underlies a sparsely populated region that features striking landscapes, critical watersheds, and a struggling economic base. It also contains one of the world's largest supplies of natural gas, a resource that has been dismissed as inaccessible—until recently. Technological developments that combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") have removed physical and economic barriers to extracting hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of gas from bedrock deep below the Appalachian basin. Beginning in 2006, the first successful Marcellus gas wells by Range Resources, combined with a spike in the value of natural gas, spurred a modern-day gold rush—a "gas rush"—with profound ramifications for environmental policy, energy markets, political dynamics, and the lives of the people living in the Marcellus region. Under the Surface is the first book-length journalistic overview of shale gas development and the controversies surrounding it.
Control over drilling rights is at stake in the heart of Marcellus country—northeast Pennsylvania and central New York. The decisions by landowners to work with or against the companies—and the resulting environmental and economic consequences—are scrutinized by neighbors faced with similar decisions, by residents of cities whose water supply originates in the exploration area, and by those living across state lines with differing attitudes and policies concerning extraction industries. Wilber's evenhanded treatment gives a voice to all constituencies, including farmers and landowners tempted by the prospects of wealth but wary of the consequences, policymakers struggling with divisive issues, and activists coordinating campaigns based on their respective visions of economic salvation and environmental ruin. Wilber describes a landscape in which the battle over the Marcellus ranges from the very local—yard signs proclaiming landowners' allegiances for or against shale gas development—to often conflicting municipal, state, and federal legislation intended to accelerate, delay, or discourage exploration.
For millions of people with a direct stake in shale gas exploration in the Marcellus or any number of other emerging shale resources in the United States and worldwide, or for those concerned about the global energy outlook, Under the Surface offers a worthwhile and engaging look at the issues.
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"This is a faultlessly edited book, scholarly in its attention to detail and to its sources, but still manages to enthrall like a page-turning thriller. The author makes sure the facts are presented accurately and fairly, but also manages to slip in colourful details like the pattern on a lawyer's tie and a leaseholder's hairstyle [...] It will make interesting reading for energy company executives, activists on both sides of the debate, geologists interested in the personal impact of their science, and anyone who may one day be living in the vicinity of a gas pad or thinking of signing a lease with a shale-gas company."
"Wilber situates his story squarely atop the Marcellus shale by recounting the experiences of residents in rural communities in order to explore how natural gas extraction impacted the people who reside above this immense geological formation. The author provides character sketches of memorable personalities who represent a range of constituencies."
– Brian Frehner, Environmental History
"Under the Surface is an invaluable new book on the gas rush in the Pennsylvania-New York border region. I find Wilber (and his book) to be the closest thing to ground truth that exists in the hype-cloaked arena."
– Andrew C. Revkin, Dot Earth Blog, New York Times
"Few ecological concerns are so controversial as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking.' [...] Across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, pro- and anti-fracking forces are marshaling their constituencies for a showdown. Opponents argue that the process will ruin major water supplies, while advocates see huge resources of energy and the prospect of dazzling wealth. Wilber, a former environmental reporter who has been covering the fracking debate from the beginning, combines a storyteller's ear with a journalist's eye, offering a sensitive and especially timely take on the issue [...] Wilber tells how the residents of New York's Southern Tier and Pennsylvania's Endless Mountains, organized, fought, and participated in countless meetings and government hearings to determine the future of their homes and land. This book will be essential background reading for the still-unfolding fracking drama."
– Publishers Weekly (23 January 2012)
"Wilber has managed to collect and organize most of the pertinent information about the geology, drilling practices, leasing of mineral rights, laws and regulations, politics, and people involved in this ongoing drama about the Marcellus Shale and its exploitation. He allows all sides – industry, government, and individuals (both winners and losers) – to have their say and state their case. It becomes evident that there are no true heroes and few true villains in all of this, but everyone involved has made plenty of mistakes and misjudgments. Although parts of the book read like a novel, the author carefully documents the book's content. A valuable work for anyone who has heard of fracking or of shale gas and wants to learn more. Highly recommended."
– Choice (1 November 2012)
"Tom Wilber covered the shale story for the Binghamton newspaper for years, and grounds it in the setting of both Pennsylvania and New York politics."
– New York Review of Books
"Wilber describes the human and geologic drama along the New York/Pennsylvania border and its effects on people, land, water, air, politics, and economies. The narrative revolves around the area's geologic history, mineral and property rights, corporate actions, government regulations (or lack thereof), human and environmental health issues, social networks, and economic realities. The cast of advance men, scientists, cheerleaders, locals, corporate CEOs, accidental activists, politicians, and bureaucrats step off the page to meet readers. The interplay of their words and actions tells the often sad but sometimes positive story of people and politics in a world that demands ever-increasing amounts of energy. Recommended to all readers curious about the backstory of an important, ongoing public drama."
– Library Journal
"Tom Wilber's new book reads like a character-driven novel as it tells the stories of the winners and losers, industry leaders and regulators on the new frontier of shale gas [...] Wilber doesn't push an agenda but tries to maintain a journalist's objectivity and attention to detail from all angles."
– Associated Press
"If you're new to the fracking debate, and even if you have a strong working knowledge of this issue, you will come away having learned something new. Wilber provides a thoughtful, and carefully researched, look at the upsides, as well as the potentially catastrophic downsides, of the impact this new form of gas drilling could have on one of the world's most pristine watersheds."
– Chronogram Magazine
"Under the Surface is all about energy. First, it is about this nation's insatiable appetite for it, which has led to perilous undertakings like shale extraction, with its enormous economic, environmental, political, and personal repercussions. But it is also about a reporter's seemingly limitless supply of energy. Fracking shatters subterranean rocks to release precious natural gas; Under the Surface represents a kind of reportorial fracking, in which the indefatigable Wilber bores in to extract how the process has had an impact on the lives of those atop or near that gas. While his focus is on upstate New York and Pennsylvania, this is a story that concerns us all."
– David Margolick, contributing editor, Vanity Fair, and author of Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock
"I think shale gas is a disaster for the planet's climate. But as this account makes clear it has also taken a profound toll on people and communities with the misfortune to sit atop the Marcellus deposits. Sometimes I think the recipe for a happy life is to make sure there's nothing valuable under your soil."
– Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet
"Under the Surface makes sure we hear from those who support development of the Marcellus Shale formation, as well as the skeptics. But it is hard not to be moved by the testimony it gathers from ordinary citizens already hurt by the methane explosions, foul groundwater, and other damage [...] As a former regulator, it is hard for me to read how little our government agencies have done – or been able to do – to make sure that our health and natural resources aren't shortchanged as this industry continues to grow."
– Eric Schaffer, former director of EPA's Office of Civil Enforcement.
"With a journalist's command of the facts and a novelist's eye for his subjects, Tom Wilber takes us to the living rooms, farms, meeting halls, and mountain streams where the fracking drama plays out daily. This is the grimy side of the American Dream, twenty-first century style – the economy vs. the environment, energy vs. water, human vs. corporation. Wilber spent more than three years researching and writing this book. His ease of storytelling, language, and explanation are a welcome guide through a complex topic. Alongside the land rush, gold rush, railroad boom, and oil boom, Under the Surface is an essential chapter in an American story that too often pits homestead and community against the building of the nation."
– John Cronin, senior fellow at Pace and Clarkson Universities, former Hudson Riverkeeper, and coauthor of The Riverkeepers
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