Marcellus: Blessing? Curse?

Author Knows Both Sides of a Controversy

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

In answer to the question “Is the extensive Marcellus shale development a blessing or a curse for landowners?” author Seamus McGraw has been known to answer:


He bases that answer on experience. His widowed mother signed a lease on her Pennsylvania farm with Chesapeake Energy Corp. at the peak of the Marcellus land frenzy. That brought her a handsome lease bonus on her hundred acres.

A blessing.

It also brought a disorienting incursion of trucks and heavy equipment, the grinding roar of drilling rigs, worries about water quality, the discharge of chemical-laced fluid into rivers and streams, a disruption of lifestyle and landscape, a crippling strain on community.

The curse.

McGraw related his family’s experiences during the advent of the Marcellus shale play in “The End of Country,” published in 2011. The book provides a window on the many ways the developing play affected his mother and her neighbors in their rural neighborhood.

He will discuss that period and his current perspective on oil and gas development on Tuesday, May 22, as speaker for the Energy Minerals Division luncheon at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Pittsburgh.

About “The End of Country,” McGraw said, “I think it’s about the challenge that comes from what happens below the surface being mirrored in communities above the surface.”

“The word ‘fracking’ has come to be a very powerful word in this conversation,” he added. “We push the word and pull it – we Silly Putty it to cover everything that happens in the process.”

In McGraw’s view, hydrofracturing equates to pumping fluid down a hole under enormous pressure to create fissures and to exploit existing fractures. He thinks communities go through something similar when an unconventional play develops.

“They have been exploiting existing fractures within these communities,” he said, “with enormous consequences.”

Regrets? He’s Had a Few

McGraw described himself as still deeply conflicted about his family’s actions in leasing their farm for drilling. He recounted a radio interview during which he was asked, “Do you regret the decision you made?”

“I said, ‘I’m a 54-year-old, chain-smoking, recovering alcoholic. I can probably count the things I don’t regret on the fingers of one hand,’” he recalled.

The better question would be “Would you do it again?” McGraw observed.

“And the answer is, ‘Yes, I would,’” he said.

In a way, that answer reflects McGraw’s environmental beliefs.

“We’ve reduced our coal consumption partly by development of renewables,” McGraw said. “We’ve reduced our carbon output by about the total carbon output of England. We’ve taken some real steps. Not enough, but real steps.”

Yet the United States’ recent ability to curb pollution and greenhouse gas emissions largely comes from something else.

“If you listen to the EIA (the U.S. Energy Information Administration), the biggest reason is natural gas,” he said.

Unconventional resource development has produced not only more abundant but also much cheaper natural gas supplies, shifting the balance away from more-polluting, coal-fired power plants.

It also has lessened America’s dependence on imported oil and gas. And McGraw said that’s important when he thinks about his young son, and his own days as a journalist writing about the war in Iraq.

“I don’t want him standing on the same sand I was standing on with a gun in his hand, trying to protect someone else’s water or someone else’s oil,” he said.

McGraw might have seen the worst of the industry’s early push into shale gas. Numerous frac fluid spills occurred in northeast Pennsylvania, many caused when drillers lost control of flowback.

His family’s farm is just five miles from Dimock, where an operator was ordered to provide several families with potable water after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found water wells there were tainted by shale gas drilling.

He’s now skeptical about the hype surrounding estimates of unconventional gas reserves – and the idea that the United States may become the Saudi Arabia of global gas supply.

“We’re not going to be the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” he said. “What we’re likely to be is the Nigeria of natural gas.”

'A Larger Theology'

In his career as a freelance journalist, McGraw’s writing has appeared in such diverse publications as Popular Mechanics, Reader’s Digest, Playboy and Spin. He’d decided to give up journalism when the Marcellus shale events came along.

“Nearly three decades of writing for newspapers and magazines, in a career that had never provided more than a meager and unreliable income, had left me frustrated, angry and pretty much dead broke,” he wrote in the acknowledgments for “The End of Country.”

As a final gesture, McGraw wrote a proposal for a book based on his family’s experiences and the Marcellus play, expecting and half-hoping it would fail.

That wasn’t a mistake. People who don’t write much and don’t write for money often think of writing as a special talent or skill. People who write a lot and write for money tend to think of writing as a chronic disease.

McGraw’s only mistake was in thinking there’s a cure.

As it happened, his proposal for “The End of Country” drew considerable interest and ended up in a bidding tug-of-war between major publishers. McGraw is now at work on another book, a ground-level look at the debate over climate change.

“The idea is that if we can pry the discussion away from the talking heads and talk to the hearts, maybe we can start to find common ground,” he said.

Too often, McGraw observed, people will take a position on an issue like hydraulic fracturing based on preconceived notions and their personal belief systems, not on experience and research and facts.

“When I find out where somebody stands on this issue, I can tell with frightening accuracy where they stand on five or six or seven or eight other hot-button issues. And that’s absolutely tragic,” McGraw said.

“It’s not being evaluated on its merits,” he noted. “It’s being evaluated as part of a larger theology.”

Comfortably Numb

McGraw’s luncheon talk at the AAPG meeting is titled “Comfortable in Our Ignorance.” The title comes from an experience he had at a lecture discussion.

“This person stands up and cites a cataclysmic event here in Pennsylvania,” he recalled.

The event was so remarkable it would have drawn intense coverage not only in the United States but around the word, McGraw said, if it had actually occurred.

It hadn’t.

“It never happened,” he said. “But this person wasn’t lying to me. I looked into this person’s eyes and knew this person absolutely believed it had happened.”

After he asked a few questions, McGraw noticed “almost a look of terror” as the person realized the event might not have been real.

McGraw said the individual stood up to leave and announced, “I am not going to argue with you. I am comfortable in my own ignorance.”

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Award-winning author Seamus McGraw will be the speaker for this year’s Energy Minerals Division Luncheon, set at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, May 22, at the AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Pittsburgh.

McGraw’s talk will be titled “Comfortable in Our Own Ignorance.”

The session will focus on how extreme voices on both sides of the public debate over shale gas exploration and development are effectively undermining efforts to develop the resource more safely, damaging efforts to maximize its potential environmental advantages and preventing the real economic benefits from taking hold.

The perspective, he says, goes for both sides of the debate.

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