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Life in the Gas Lane: Living with Drilling, Part I

(This is an expansion of my overly-long comment on gob's post, so I'm going to split it into sections in order to add a bit more detail and make it a little easier to absorb.)

As a resident of Bradford County PA, I'm a first-hand witness to the impact of the rush to drill in the Marcellus Shale. Of the 67 counties, Bradford County is ranked #2 in area and #40 in population. We're currently #1 in wells drilled with total of 143 this year, up from 117 in 2009, and 24 in 2008. There are an estimated 1,000 wells yet to be drilled.

Natural gas drilling has changed things quite a bit here in rural PA. Bradford County has been economically depressed for a long time -- the same story in every rural area whose history is closely tied to agriculture. When drilling in the Marcellus Shale became a serious opportunity, most of us jumped on the bandwagon -- finally, a means of bringing economic prosperity to our region. Everyone would benefit! We'd be rolling in dough! There would even be ponies! Or something....

Anyone who brought up potential negative impacts was ignored or dismissed as an "hysterical tree-hugger." Now that the drilling is in full swing, the majority of our residents are resentful of the changes it's brought about, including many who previously supported the drilling.

Jeffrey Jacquet's "boomtown" study shows that while the social impacts of drilling can vary from place to place, there are common themes, including a rapidly increasing cost of housing, which starts the financial pressure on long-term residents, which is then followed by inflation of the prices of goods and services in the drilling region.

The potential negative effects are enormous, and literally encompass every imaginable area of life. In this section, I'll be covering the demographic and social changes being seen in my area. (This is based on my observations as well as community discussions and local newspaper articles.) One thing to keep in mind is that, while I'm covering them separately, impacts in one area affect others and often magnify one another.

The population of Bradford County has probably increased by ~4000 in the last two years, with a projected 10,000-person increase expected over the next 2-3 years of drilling, because of the number of gas company workers flooding into the area plus those who come to the area seeking jobs.

Most of those are males, under age 35, and usually single or with families living elsewhere. More than half are living out of suitcases as the local motels, usually double-bunking, so there's frustration over that. Add in 12 to 14-hour shifts on a seven-on/seven-off schedule, and the stress levels must be enormous. Drinking has always been a favorite pastime of the area, but the "roughnecks" take their drinking seriously.

Crime is becoming more of a problem. More people equals more crime, more injuries, more auto accidents. 911 calls have increased, as well as the number of fire, ambulance, and police runs, with resultant increases in demand on the emergency rooms, district justices, and the county jail -- all of which require the hiring of more personnel, except there's no money for new hires.

We had a shooting on the street that started as a fight between a local and a driller -- actually, it started with a local man being rough with his girlfriend at a bar. The driller made the mistake of thinking he should assist the lady, followed them out to the street, and ended up being beaten for his trouble. He pulled a gun...and accidentally shot the damsel in distress. We've also had several instances of sabotage of gas company vehicles and equipment, some threats made against gas workers, and I think things are escalating to the point that violence is going to become commonplace, especially among males ages 18-30 in both groups who are competing for jobs and women (generally speaking).

Drilling is one of the few (only?) occupations in the area where you can earn big money, so there's competition on several levels. One of the loudest complaints you'll hear from locals is "They're taking our jobs." The fact that hydrofracking never existed in PA prior to 2004, and that no one living here all their lives has ever been trained in or certified for in this work is beside the point for most of those whining. A positive benefit of the drilling has been the addition of a Natural Gas Technology degree at Lackawanna College's satellite center in Towanda where local residents can learn everything they need to know to work in drilling and to become rig certified.

Another source of resentment is dating between local women and drillers. When you have a large influx of males into a territory, competition for the scarcer females becomes fierce -- or so say the evo-psych folks. This "stealing our wimmenfolk!" mentality has cropped up in a number of ways, from a friend who was harassed by some people on the street while leaving a restaurant after dinner with a gas worker, to a college classmate who talked about having her boyfriend pick her up down the road because her father "would freak out" if he saw her with a driller, to a my son's co-worker who claimed that "any guy around here who wants a date better be working for a gas company."

As a feminist and future sociologist, this is kind of fascinating to watch, but at the same time, pretty damn depressing. The fact that women in Bradford County are not more worldly or more angelic than their counterparts in any other place -- and that they have a right to make their own choices in companions -- is lost, as usual, amidst the chest-beating and the, ahem ... measuring contests. For women who date outsiders, either the gas drillers are corrupting us, or else we're just terrible sluts and -- having been rejected by locals, only drillers will have us. In the weird mating dance that goes on around here, some of the local guys go out of their way to prove their "hometown" creds, while some try to imitate the drillers. (Sales of heavy-duty pickups, lift-kits, and monster tires have got to be increasing among the locals.)

Racism is another issue. For all that we like to pretend otherwise, racism has always been a problem in this area, but it's become more overt since the drilling began, because many of the workers are Hispanic. It is so common to hear people talking about the "damn Mexicans" that I feel like I'm living in Arizona, but what's ignored is the fact that many of the workers are not, in fact, "Mexican" but Texans or Oklahomans or Louisianans.

To be honest, both sides think they're better than the other. The drillers and their corporate overlords think we're backwards hicks who are gouging them right and left and should be grateful to have been saved from ourselves through the Grace of God and Natural Gas. The locals think the drillers are a bunch of ignorant drunken criminals who lack respect for our institutions and are happily destroying our peaceful, harmonious county where everyone always got along and all was Good and Right and Holy. I'm exaggerating, of course... but only slightly.

In April, an article came out in the local paper about the removal of tables from the county courthouse in order to reduce the number of title searchers in the rotunda. This was because up to 100 researchers from the various gas companies were taking over every available space, eating, watching videos, using cell phones, etc., blocking the area, and creating enough noise to interrupt a commissioners meeting, as well as producing enough trash and mess to require the hiring of an additional janitor.

The online edition of the paper saw comments from both sides that typifies the resentment on both sides. Here's a sample:

"You say GO commissioners take back the courthouse and town. Well let me tell you all something we have bought more money into this county then anyone ever has!!! gas is good for this county. bradford county use to be one on the poorest counties in pa now we are one of the richest!!! u all need to get your fact straigh before anyone runs their mouth!!!" -- GO GAS WORKERS!!!

"To all of you complaining about the "Gas Workers", I am here to tell you that the OIL & GAS INDUSTRY is creating revenue for Bradford County in more ways than one. So be quiet and enjoy the benefits that being on my feet for 8 hours a day is contributing to the economic growth in your town, not to mention the xtra hours when I go home at night to work on the computer and do my paperwork." --Insulted O&G Abstractor

"Here it is again, a gas person telling us how much money has been brought in. People from other areas sometimes have a hard time believing that there are some things about our lives here in Bradford County that are much more important than money. When the gas industry is about to ream you, it always reminds you of the money that it is giving you to ease the pain." -- Money not the object

"It isn't all about you! You were accomodated, misused that accomodation and now are whining about restrictions being placed on you. Grow up and act professionally." --4Sure

That's actually pretty mild. I tried finding some of the more offensive ones but The Daily Review has a circa-2000 website and archive. This sort of thing is repeated in nearly every area of life, as locals try to hold on to the "way things were," and the drillers try to make the best of things while working dirty, dangerous jobs and living in a hostile environment, often away from their families.

I often joke that I'm going to hold a peace summit for locals and drillers, but the truth is, something like that is needed. Our local blue-collar workers and those working the drilling rigs have more in common that not. But, unless they're forced to interact and get to know each other, the friction between the two groups is going to worsen.

In Part II, I'll look at some of the environmental impacts we're seeing in Bradford County.

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Submitted by Fran on

about the coal boom in Appalachia. We all know how that turned out. The big companies swooped down, made money and wrecked the area. The workers and the inhabitants had more money for awhile, but, in the end, were poor again and living in a devastated landscape.

Submitted by PA_Lady on

I think that's one of the things that makes me the angriest about this situation: there was plenty of proof that we would end up in exactly the same boat as every other state these companies flocked to, but our local officials ignored or glossed over it all, as did everyone else who enthusiastically supported drilling. Those of us who were anti-drilling or simply wanted it done in a responsible manner were told to sit down, shut up, and count the money.

In a way, I guess it prepared me for the 2008 primaries. :)

Submitted by libbyliberal on

This is fascinating and depressing but so good you are examining it and reporting on it.

When two macho cultures collide ... wow ... the collosal insensitivity of corporatism to community.

I read where lithium is being found in Afghanistan. More corporate raping to occur. China and US licking their chops. Dear God.

I am curious, too, about what is going on with the military base in Okinawa, that has aroused such anger in Japan and yet why was that new leader not able to move it? Apparently the rapes of local women by military men was causing so much outrage among maybe much more. And yet it is still there. I need to do more researching myself.

I am so sick of "might" overcoming justice and empathy.

Thanks for this. I skimmed it quickly and intend to come back and go over one more time.

Submitted by PA_Lady on

BC is a sociologist's dream -- clash of cultures, clash of the sexes, haves vs. have-nots, corporate effect on small-town America, and the way people respond to all of it.

My first thought when I heard about Afghanistan's minerals was "Divine save them." The mining companies will love it: "no real rules to follow so no one cares if we destroy the environment and poison the people. WOOT!"

ClareA's picture
Submitted by ClareA on

Thanks for posting this.

The quality of your writing is striking. Write more.

Submitted by lambert on

Dittoez.

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Submitted by Stirling Newberry on

Natural resource booms are generally not pretty in the beginning. However, this isn't the first fling Northern PA has had with drilling, it used to be oil.

Submitted by lambert on

Just like Zone 5b, where I live, which is experiencing the same process, except with landfills, and not drilling. Upstate NY, which is also marginal, is experiencing drilling as well, also in the Marcellus shale. NOLA (Oil...), Detroit (water???)...

I would argue, possibly incorrectly, that the concentration of "third pole" of American prospects is higher than average in geographically marginal areas. That is the implication of this post of political economy.

Submitted by PA_Lady on

Although the oil drilling was in the northwestern part of the state, not the northeastern. We have had some experience with resource mining/extraction, but those were usually small-scale local operations -- coal, PA bluestone, etc.

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Submitted by leah on

It's such a classic history of exploitation, divide and conquer, divide and conquer, over and over and over again.

One question PA Lady: does there seem to be any cross communication between the drilling faction and the locals who see Bradford County as the ground in which they are rooted that could be the basis for some kind of coming together around issues of mutual interest vis a vis the corporate enterprise for both sets of "the little" people, specific environmental concerns, which can affect workers as much as locals?

Or perhaps that comes up in the next installments.

Invaluable reporting.