A tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, with Victoria Switzer is a bumpy ride over torn-up roads, around parking lots filled with heavy machinery and storage tanks, and past well pads that not long ago were forests. The winter here was quiet, but with the thawing ground came the return of the rigs, the trucks, the constant noise and lights of a twenty-four-hour-a-day gas drilling operation. "It’s a modern-day Deadwood out here," Switzer says, likening the activity to the gold rush. "No rules, no regs, just rigs."
The "occupation," as she calls it, hasn’t just transformed Dimock into an industrial hub; it has also damaged the local water supply and put residents’ health at risk. After a stray drill bit banged four wells in 2008, Switzer says, weird things started happening to people’s water: some flushed black, some orange, some turned bubbly. One well exploded, the result of methane migration, and residents say elevated metal and toluene levels have ruined twelve others. Then, in September 2009, about 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into nearby fields and creeks. The contamination and related health problems have prompted fifteen families to file suit against Cabot Oil and Gas, the primary leaseholder in the area, alleging fraud and contract violation and seeking to stop the damage from spreading.
If she could do it all over again, Switzer says, she never would have signed the 2006 drilling lease that helped open Pandora’s Box here. But at the time, she’d never heard of hydrofracking—the Cabot representative didn’t mention the word to her when he gained the rights to drill on her land. The story of gas drilling in Dimock begins more than a mile below the earth’s surface in the Marcellus Shale, a huge rock formation that extends from New York to Tennessee. Some geologists estimate that the Marcellus contains enough shale gas to power the United States for two decades. But the gas is caught in millions of tiny pores and can be extracted only through hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, a controversial process that requires blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep underground to create fissures that open the pores and free gas to rise to the surface.
Hydrofracking is a hugely lucrative and rapidly expanding industry—the consulting firm PFC Energy recently reported that shale gas production accounts for about 10 percent of US natural gas production, up from 1 percent in 2000. It is bolstered not only by a powerful lobby but also by growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change and America’s dependence on foreign oil. In recent years, a broad coalition of energy analysts and government officials have embraced domestic natural gas as a promising "bridge fuel" that could help smooth the transition from more carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil and coal to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The catch, though, is that the natural gas industry shares the same history as other energy industries operating in the United States. A string of recent disasters—including the TVA coal ash spill, the Massey coal mine explosion and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—have demonstrated all too vividly that failure to regulate and oversee resource extraction can lead to catastrophe. Some fear that Dimock is the first natural gas casualty, an early warning of what could happen on a much larger scale if fracking spreads unchecked to other residential areas in the Marcellus region and across the country.