During the last year or so, all you had to do was mention “gas drilling” or “fracking” to anyone in the Potter, Bradford, or Tioga County region of Pennsylvania, and you’d be sure to get an earful. Everyone in the area has experiences, opinions, ideas, and concerns about the fact that we live smack-dab in the middle of the Marcellus Shale. “Marcellus Shale” refers to the geological formation from which energy companies are aggressively seeking to extract natural gas. The formation extends from the Catskills in New York, south and west through Pennsylvania, into West Virginia and Ohio.
What makes Stephanie Hamel’s experiences with gas drilling any different from yours or mine? In many ways, nothing – except she decided to take hers public. Hamel’s book, “Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage,” is a gift to all of us. In honest, thoughtful, bittersweet reflections, Stephanie shares the struggle she and her family went through, from September 2008, when they were offered a gas lease on their family land, until the book went to press in spring of 2011.
In many ways, Stephanie Hamel’s situation is no different from the story of most people living in the Marcellus Shale region. Stephanie is a wife who is concerned about the current threat to her husband’s job, a mother of two young boys, a landowner who would like to be able to put more money into her dreams for the land. Hamel, however, also has the training that gives her a special perspective on the environmental concerns at play here. Stephanie – that is, Dr. Hamel – earned her B.S. in Chemistry from Grove City College; her M.S. in Chemistry from Lehigh University; and a Joint Ph.D. in “Exposure Assessment” from Rutgers University and the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She has also done post-graduate research in the Department of Plant Sciences at Rutgers. She is a chemist who loves soil, the land, and people. She has studied extensively about the chemicals we use and the effects they have on our bodies.
Though Hamel’s background as a scientist and a researcher give her a distinctly more academic approach to looking at a problem, she nevertheless decided to write this book from a very personal viewpoint.
As Stephanie explains in her “Notes and Disclaimers” at the beginning of her book, “This is a true story, written first in diary form and in notes taken during telephone conversations… [it] reflects a developing knowledge of the natural gas industry and the legalities associated with land ownership and gas leasing.”
The story opens with Stephanie’s email to her friend, Frank, a colleague from Rutgers who works with the DEP in New Jersey, whose background is hydrogeology. Despite distractions from busy little boys, loads of laundry, this first email outlines the Hamel family’s situation in September 2008 quite succinctly:
“… Two weeks ago, Tom and I were offered $2,500 an acre to lease our natural gas rights up in Wellsboro. The whole of northern PA is singing the Hallelujah Chorus because there is gas under our land, and it is now economically feasible to drill. There is a well within 0.50 miles of my property and I listened to the drilling during my quiet, reflective time – HA! – this summer; there are two more wells within a two mile radius.
Everyone in the area is seeing dollar signs and is signing up as fast as the lease agreement arrives on the doorstep. Tom Hamel has the unfortunate luck of being married to the only one who regards this windfall as a curse. Frank, it is very easy for me to criticize unrestrained fossil fuel consumption, but it is much more challenging to put my money where my mouth is when a large sum of money is at stake….”
One thing I love about Stephanie is that she doesn’t shirk from discussing the hard truths of our own inherent contradictions, when we strive to be both stewards and consumers; activists with principles, yet humans with wants and needs. Stephanie has both a wry sense of humor and a critical eye on her own hypocrisy. One of my favorite scenes showing Stephanie’s humor is her example of the gas grill she proudly rescued from the landfill. For a few dollars, she fixed the bad burner, pleased to reduce, reuse, recycle – that is, until she walked out on her back porch after writing, and recognized with shock what powered that grill.
Hamel writes with clarity and acute self-awareness about the acronym that all people working in the environmental field learn – NIMBY, “Not In My Backyard”. We all understand the need for finding more energy, having a landfill, building a new highway: we just want it to happen somewhere else.
As the book unfolds, there are times that you, the reader, may be as frustrated with Stephanie’s analyzing as her husband is; where you may be as confused by Stephanie’s circuitous thoughts as Stephanie herself is. There are certainly times when you may want to shout, “Just get on with it! Decide!” You may be tempted to skip to the end to find out what the Hamels ultimately decided. Don’t do it. Life is not lived that way. Hard decisions are made the way Stephanie writes about this. Experience this journey with her, even if you have already experienced it in your own home, on your own land. If you have already struggled with this, you’ll find validation. If you haven’t, you’ll find sympathy and a better understanding for your neighbors who are dealing with this.
Let other books about gas drilling be for angry recriminations, for stirring up self-righteousness on one side of the fence or the other, for black-or-white answers. Stephanie’s book is about the struggle to do what is right for oneself, for one’s family, for one’s land, for the community… the earth … the environment … and what to do when those loyalties are at loggerheads. What I love most about Stephanie’s tone is her honesty, her rueful look at her own foibles and contradictions, which definitely hold up a mirror to show us our own. Ultimately, this is not an easy issue, and Stephanie’s book honors that.