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All History of US Environmental Policy


I grew up in central Pennsylvania in the 2000s, in a town called State College, home to Penn State University, surrounded by and central to the fracking boom. In 2007, a Penn State professor estimated the amount of natural gas fracking could extract from the Marcellus Shale, and the fracking began. The nearest permitted gas wells to my family’s house are 8.8 miles away, and the nearest active fracking is 15 miles away. But my town, State College, is in the eye of the storm; while my county has primarily conventional natural gas extraction, the surrounding counties quickly became covered in fracking. Republican state leadership through the 2010s was incredibly supportive of the fracking boom, promising major economic development that came and went in the form of unstable, low-paid work in the service and gas industries. Looking at a map of wells today, the pins crowd the landscape, mapping not only the Marcellus formation but levels of economic desperation, which fracking did little to solve. Since the drops in oil prices, fracking has collapsed too, leaving communities across Pennsylvania with a sparkling legacy: highly polluted water, a Department of Environmental Protection that “did not take sufficient action”, and drops in dairy production in my county. Penn State did receive a massive new ice rink with the largest gift in their history via a fortune made on mineral rights, in exchange for our neighbors’ plight.

Governor Tom Corbett was the Republican governor of Pennsylvania presiding over much of the fracking boom. In 2011, a report made a litany of recommendations to the governor’s office on regulation and oversight of fracking. One of those rejected was spending a few million dollars on state-funded research to gather baseline water quality and health data any potential negative effects could be compared to. This gap is one scientists have tried to make up for, and in high school, I was part of a group called the Teen Shale Network taking water quality measurements near abandoned wells and reporting this data. But other measures, like the continued lack of transparency on chemicals used in fracking, live on.

Recognizing the state’s vital economy deriving from its natural beauty and tourism, Vermont’s pre-emptive ban in 2012 shows a path of forward-thinking environmental leadership. Vermont has a higher average net worth and order of magnitude smaller population, and crucially had no known gas reserves fracking could extract. In this light, the ban appears a privilege. But New York, directly to Pennsylvania’s north, features many of the same circumstances as Pennsylvania, and chose this higher road. Seeing early pollution across the fracked areas of the Marcellus, in 2014, an executive order put a complete stop to additional fracking wells. (It has since been codified more permanently in state law.)

Though my drinking water remained safe and my life insulated from fracking, it’s hard to look back at fracking across the poorer areas of the state and not see short-term profiteering taking advantage of desperate people. Under intense lobbying, state leadership bent to support the erroneous/exaggerated claims the industry made about job growth, putting environmental concerns on the back burner. Fracking was never a necessity, and in an era now where solar panels are a cheaper energy source with none of the local pollution, its legacy and ongoing tragedy feel all the more avoidable. States that entertained the notion—sadly, a majority—that near-unmonitored fracking could be anything less than disaster continue to pay, through the health of their poorest, least-defended residents and the quality of the environment for decades.