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The Catskills Gas Rush

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He closed one eye to regard the map. Strategically, he knows what he has to do next. The large block of yellow on the northernmost reaches of map 161 is separated from the large yellow block to the south by two lots of unleased property. They are arranged in such a way that he only needs one of them in order to make his prospect contiguous, which is essential for when the pipeline comes. The smaller piece is an L-shaped parcel belonging to someone named Rozell.

“I can tell you she’s an 85-year-old widow,” he said. “For some reason, I haven’t talked to her yet.” The bigger prize would be her next-door neighbor, let’s call him Robert Porter. Glassmire hasn’t called him, either. The Porter tract is 50 acres, one of the largest in 161, but Glassmire knows he’s got other property as well.

Leasing Porter would be a coup. With one negotiation, the rest of map 161 would fall into Cabot’s column. But Porter isn’t an easy mark. Other Cabot landmen have talked to him. Glassmire referred to takeoff notes they had entered into Porter’s file. He appeared to be a quarryman with offices in Scranton. Glassmire contemplated showing up at the office unannounced, but hadn’t settled on his strategy.

“For one thing, I have in my notes that Porter is asking for $3,000. Which theoretically means it doesn’t matter if I do go to him, because I can’t do $3,000. So I have to create my own sort of portal on that. Get my own—” He rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. “Generate my own horse’s mouth. See what he says to me.”

He crashed onto his bed, landing on his copies of Henry Miller’s Sexus, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Harry Mulisch’s The Discovery of Heaven, and Saramago’s Blindness. He pulled the map over him like a sheet. “That’s a guy who wants a lot of money, Robert Porter. Like, if the common good is this much, he deserves a percentage higher. He’s like a Real Important Quarryman. The Beatles used to be called the Quarrymen, did you know that? Do you think the Beatles were really from Susquehanna County instead of Liverpool?” He cracked himself up.

Natural gas is the white meat of fossil fuels. It burns considerably cleaner than coal, gasoline, and oil, and it has the advantage of being independent of the Middle East. Plus it’s relatively cheap. Increasingly, cars are being outfitted to burn it, at a third the price of gasoline. To meet the growing demand, a 182-mile-long, 30-inch-diameter Millennium Pipeline is being built across the Southern Tier of the state. It will connect to New York City by November. Much of the expected Marcellus Shale lode will come directly to the city.

But natural gas is no solution to global warming. It still contributes greenhouse gases. Worse, the process of extracting natural gas turns out to pose serious environmental risks. Of immediate concern is the drilling process. Some of the impact is temporary, as Glassmire said. Large crews work around the clock under a canopy of lamps that can make country lanes look more like a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And the drilling is noisy, says Bruce Baizel, an attorney for the Oil & Gas Accountability Project, a Colorado nonprofit. “Drilling rigs run up to 100 decibels,” he says. “That’s higher than a jet plane.”

But the greater concern is the horizontal hydraulic fracturing process—known as “fracing”—which rattles the ground like earthquakes. Out West, where fracing began in 2003, neighbors complained that the process spoiled their drinking-water wells and damaged their foundations. The water for blasting open the shale and freeing the gas is treated with chemicals, to help break up the stone, and mixed with sand, to hold open the newly created fissures. Exactly which chemicals are used is not publicly known. The recipe was pioneered by Halliburton. The company considers the formula to be a trade secret and guards it like Kentucky Fried Chicken guards its batter recipe. One large independent study of fraced wells in the West, by the environmental scientist Theo Colborn, identified over 400 chemical toxins in contaminated groundwater and soil, including the carcinogens ethylbenzene, chromium, and arsenic.

No prosecutions were brought. I was astonished to learn that the Energy Policy Act of 2005, passed by Congress in part to reduce dependence on foreign energy, specifically exempts oil and gas companies from major environmental-protection laws. These include the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act.

I repeated all this to Glassmire, but he had trouble seeing gas companies as bad guys. “The soil is maintained, it is reestablished, life is preserved,” Glassmire said. “I can’t worry about tremors, I can’t worry about the blasts and the trucks—I don’t know, but don’t ask me to worry about that.” He put on his self-mocking There Will Be Blood voice again. “You know I wish everybody well, but on the other hand I really don’t care.”


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