Winter Reads: Water and Natural Gas

Winter brings us indoors and the weather provides an overdue excuse to sit down and pick up a book. But which one? This column will offer a review of the newest and best books on a particular topic of general interest to the readers of Small Farm Quarterly.

Hydrofracking and the risks to our agricultural watershed provide the subject for this inaugural column. “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water,” W.H. Auden, First Things First.

Water matters to farmers. So do oil and mineral rights on agricultural land. Years past, these leases paid the taxes on the land when crops didn’t. The Marcellus Shale deposits of natural gas in the Northeast are now being extracted using the force of water and sand mixed with a secret toxic mix of chemicals to fracture the shale and release the gas. Greed, jealousy, betrayal, anger and fear dominate this emotional landscape.

Seamus McGraw, End of Country, offers the first memoir written about hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale region in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania. McGraw is from Dimock, Pennsylvania, and it’s his mother’s farmland where now a methane leak continues to leak and contaminate their well and the groundwater. But don’t assume McGraw is an opponent of hydrofracking even though he is a journalist. He advised his mother to sign the lease and leans over backwards to provide a balanced account of how this issue doesn’t have a right or wrong side, but is a chronicle of the end of a way of life in the countryside.

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Natural gas drilling Photo by Helen Slottje

One of my favorite non-fiction writers, Alexandra Fuller, portrayed the culture and climate of a community in Wyoming where hydrofracking offered the only jobs in town. In The Legend of Colton Bryant she tells the true story of a young man’s life cut short in an industrial accident. Capturing the complexities of social and family conflicts around these companies coming into farm country, Fuller adheres to a larger truth. The jobs and economic development promised by the wildcat life are too little and cost too much.

Those who maximize profits in the water and gas industries take advantage of a dwindling non-renewable supply that cannot meet a growing demand. Pitting citizens against each and niggling over the specifics of the techniques and methods is to avoid the larger question of the unsustainable nature of such a model of economic development. Nearly a decade ago, Vandana Shiva brought focus to the global political economy of water as the new oil in her book Water Wars: Privatization, Pollution and Profit. Last year Bill McKibben’s Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet made global climate change a foregone conclusion with mounting evidence that we are past the tipping point. There are no snowcaps left on the Andes Mountains and the fate of freshwater sources is seriously in peril. McKibben points to our First World wasteful ways with water in the U.S., comparing us to the first class passengers on the Titanic.

Author, biologist and poet, Sandra Steingraber wrote the last chapter in her new book, Raising Elijah (2011) about high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing moving into upstate New York communities and her struggles to find ways to protect her children – and all children – from the toxic, ecologically unstable world. In her earlier books, Living Downstream and Having Faith, the environment and its desecration are made personal in her voice resembling a modern day version of Rachel Carson.

The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the 21st Century by Alex Prud’homme, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, by Paul Greenberg, Elixir: A History of Water and Humankind by Brian Fagan, and Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power and Civilization by Steven Solomon, are four books published on this matter in the last three months. All these books sound the alarm bells and the writers tell these stories in a compelling manner. All four are fascinating reads for a snowy day.

As we continue in vain to find new sources of fossil fuels to serve an unsustainable economy, we waste water. As agricultural sciences professor David Pimentel of Cornell University reports, it takes seventeen hundred liters of water to produce one liter of ethanol. This includes both the water required to grow the corn and the water required for the industrial, chemical production of ethanol. The water required for hydrofracking natural gas is much greater than that required in biofuel production. Both industrial processes produce toxic wastewater that further destroys freshwater sources.

“Fracking makes water disappear,” wrote Steingraber in her way of making the biology clear to those who are not physical scientists. The added chemicals alter water irrevocably into a toxic stew. Steingraber points to the obvious but still inconvenient truth: “Sooner or later, the gas will run out.” These things we know for certain. “Sure thing number three: Accidents happen,” wrote Steingraber. Those in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, have experienced a tractor trailer carrying an acid used in hydrofracking overturn in their community. And in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the accidental groundwater contamination happened without a crash or a bang.

Cornell University Press just released the most recent book on this topic, Under the Surface, written by Tom Wilber. A reporter for the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Wilber covered business, health, and environmental issues the past 17 years. Wilber interviewed scientists and key stakeholders on all sides of this issue. He offers an intimate view of the controversy between those who see the Marcellus region as a new economic engine to boost the languishing economy and those who foresee environmental disaster, devaluation of land, degradation of water and the ruin of the landscape and rural way of life. His evenhanded treatment gives voice to the varied constituencies, including farmers tempted by the prospects of income but worried about the ecological consequences. Under the Surface is the latest, and perhaps best, book to address the issues of hydrofracking and water we now face in our communities.

Next month, the best new memoirs about life on a small farm.

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Jill Swenson

Jill Swenson is the president of Swenson Book Development, LLC, based in Brooktondale, NY. She may be reached at or 607-539-3278.

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