Danny Glassmire was an avatar of this new world. I called him again, and he read my apprehension correctly, though he himself saw little reason to worry. He is possessed of a salesman’s ability to see the bright side. “I’m deeper in the prospect now,” he said. “I’d love to show you around.”
So a few weeks ago I drove to Binghamton to see the gas prospect where it is most mature. Glassmire operates out of a decommissioned Holiday Inn across from the SUNY campus. His room was around back, past the garbage Dumpster. A do not disturb sign was fixed on his knob. Inside was a tableau from a Maysles film. Legal documents exploded out of folders and boxes that lined the walls. Clothing was lain in heaps on the floor and lolled from half-open drawers beneath the television stand. Books were everywhere. He dotes on a certain vein of authors who are as attuned as he is to the chaotic potential of words: Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and “DFW,” as he calls David Foster Wallace, his favorite author of all time.
His bed was layered in large tax maps—Xeroxed pieces assembled with tape into blurry wall-size collages. On the desk, along with a freezer bag of colored markers, was a clear plastic pitcher filled with ice into which he’d nestled an open Bud Light Lime.
“I guess Holiday Inn took the old ice buckets when they left,” he said, offering me a warm beer and putting another in the pitcher for himself. “Must have been emblazoned with the old brand.”
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Glassmire, who is 26, was in slim corduroy pants and a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. He’s tall and skinny and driven by a twitched-up energy that makes him talk in fast-forward about a dozen thoughts at once. This made him difficult to understand. He recognized people might think he’s odd. “I’m like one of those kids who’s gainfully, like, autistic or something. Like I have my own dimension,” he explained. As he said this, his eyes shimmered and glowed. Despite a tufty, thin-on-top hairstyle (he is his own barber), Glassmire is quite handsome. (“For a landman,” Glassmire agreed, “I think I’m pretty.”)
He smoothed out a large map. “Somewhere in this map is the absolute core—the absolute core—of this prospect. And I’m going to lease it.”
Geologists have known about the gas for more than a century. It is held in an enormous rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, formed some 385 million years ago in the bed of a shallow inland sea that once stretched from south of Albany down to West Virginia, from the Hudson Valley into the middle of Ohio. Over time, the sediment-rich sea was buried, as tectonic collisions pushed the Appalachians into existence and the Catskill Mountains, a result of a single collision event, rose up in the north. The old seabed, meantime, came to rest almost two miles below the Earth’s surface. Along the way, it was subjected to increasing temperatures and compression, changing the sediment first to a waxy material from which oil can be extracted, then into natural gas and shale stone.
According to Dr. Gary Lash, a geologist at SUNY Fredonia who studies the Marcellus, it holds possibly the largest reservoir of natural gas ever discovered in America—five times larger than the previous granddaddy, the Barnett Shale, which was first identified beneath Fort Worth, Texas, in 1981 and is now in full production. There are 500 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Marcellus, enough recoverable fuel to meet all of the nation’s needs for two full years. So much is bubbling below the mid-Atlantic hills, in fact, that in the otherwise unremarkable town of Windsor, it sprays from bathroom faucets.
The Marcellus was largely ignored over the years because it is difficult and expensive to exploit. Rather than gathering in handy pockets, the Marcellus gas is tightly trapped in the pore spaces of the stone. But a new drilling technique known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing allows extractors to slam chemically treated water into the stone, breaking it up and pushing the gas into pockets for easy recovery. That, combined with a tripling in gas prices over a decade, has made the Marcellus an obsession for gas companies. In a sudden spasm of competition, hundreds of landmen have moved into motels throughout the Catskills and Poconos in the past few months. Their rivalry is fierce. The signing bonuses they’re offering for a five-year drilling lease have gone from $5 an acre last year to $3,000 or higher in some communities. That’s more than it took to buy the land outright just a few months back.