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Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale [Hardcover]

by Tom Wilber
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)

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Book Description

May 8, 2012 0801450160 978-0801450167 1

Running from southern West Virginia through eastern Ohio, across central and northeast Pennsylvania, and into New York through the Southern Tier and the Catskills, the Marcellus Shale formation underlies a sparsely populated region that features striking landscapes, critical watersheds, and a struggling economic base. It also contains one of the world's largest supplies of natural gas, a resource that has been dismissed as inaccessible—until recently. Technological developments that combine horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") have removed physical and economic barriers to extracting hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of gas from bedrock deep below the Appalachian basin. Beginning in 2006, the first successful Marcellus gas wells by Range Resources, combined with a spike in the value of natural gas, spurred a modern-day gold rush—a "gas rush"—with profound ramifications for environmental policy, energy markets, political dynamics, and the lives of the people living in the Marcellus region. Under the Surface is the first book-length journalistic overview of shale gas development and the controversies surrounding it.

Control over drilling rights is at stake in the heart of Marcellus country—northeast Pennsylvania and central New York. The decisions by landowners to work with or against the companies—and the resulting environmental and economic consequences—are scrutinized by neighbors faced with similar decisions, by residents of cities whose water supply originates in the exploration area, and by those living across state lines with differing attitudes and policies concerning extraction industries. Wilber's evenhanded treatment gives a voice to all constituencies, including farmers and landowners tempted by the prospects of wealth but wary of the consequences, policymakers struggling with divisive issues, and activists coordinating campaigns based on their respective visions of economic salvation and environmental ruin. Wilber describes a landscape in which the battle over the Marcellus ranges from the very local—yard signs proclaiming landowners' allegiances for or against shale gas development—to often conflicting municipal, state, and federal legislation intended to accelerate, delay, or discourage exploration.

For millions of people with a direct stake in shale gas exploration in the Marcellus or any number of other emerging shale resources in the United States and worldwide, or for those concerned about the global energy outlook, Under the Surface offers a worthwhile and engaging look at the issues.

Frequently Bought Together

Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale + Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril + Fracking: America's Alternative Energy Revolution
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Editorial Reviews


"This is a faultlessly edited book, scholarly in its attention to detail and to its sources, but still manages to enthrall like a page-turning thriller. The author makes sure the facts are presented accurately and fairly, but also manages to slip in colourful details like the pattern on a lawyer's tie and a leaseholder's hairstyle. . . . It will make interesting reading for energy company executives, activists on both sides of the debate, geologists interested in the personal impact of their science, and anyone who may one day be living in the vicinity of a gas pad or thinking of signing a lease with a shale-gas company." Geoscientist (August 2013)

"Wilber situates his story squarely atop the Marcellus shale by recounting the experiences of residents in rural communities in order to explore how natural gas extraction impacted the people who reside above this immense geological formation. The author provides character sketches of memorable personalities who represent a range of constituencies. . . ."
—Brian Frehner, Environmental History (Jan 2014)

"Under the Surface is all about energy. First, it is about this nation's insatiable appetite for it, which has led to perilous undertakings like shale extraction, with its enormous economic, environmental, political, and personal repercussions. But it is also about a reporter's seemingly limitless supply of energy. Fracking shatters subterranean rocks to release precious natural gas; Under the Surface represents a kind of reportorial fracking, in which the indefatigable Wilber bores in to extract how the process has had an impact on the lives of those atop or near that gas. While his focus is on upstate New York and Pennsylvania, this is a story that concerns us all."—David Margolick, contributing editor, Vanity Fair, and author of Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

"Under the Surface is an essential resource if you want a clear view of the bright and dark side of gas in Pennsylvania and New York. . . . Wilber's blog, Shale Gas Review, is also a vital touchstone."

"Under the Surface is an invaluable new book on the gas rush in the Pennsylvania-New York border region. I find Wilber (and his book) to be the closest thing to ground truth that exists in the hype-cloaked arena."—Andrew C. Revkin, Dot Earth Blog, New York Times

"Few ecological concerns are so controversial as hydraulic fracturing, or 'fracking.' . . . Across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, pro- and anti-fracking forces are marshaling their constituencies for a showdown. Opponents argue that the process will ruin major water supplies, while advocates see huge resources of energy and the prospect of dazzling wealth. Wilber, a former environmental reporter who has been covering the fracking debate from the beginning, combines a storyteller's ear with a journalist’s eye, offering a sensitive and especially timely take on the issue. . . . Wilber tells how the residents of New York’s Southern Tier and Pennsylvania’s Endless Mountains, organized, fought, and participated in countless meetings and government hearings to determine the future of their homes and land. This book will be essential background reading for the still-unfolding fracking drama."—Publishers Weekly (23 January 2012)

"Wilber has managed to collect and organize most of the pertinent information about the geology, drilling practices, leasing of mineral rights, laws and regulations, politics, and people involved in this ongoing drama about the Marcellus Shale and its exploitation. He allows all sides—industry, government, and individuals (both winners and losers)—to have their say and state their case. It becomes evident that there are no true heroes and few true villains in all of this, but everyone involved has made plenty of mistakes and misjudgments. Although parts of the book read like a novel, the author carefully documents the book's content. A valuable work for anyone who has heard of fracking or of shale gas and wants to learn more. Highly recommended."—Choice (1 November 2012)

"I think shale gas is a disaster for the planet's climate. But as this account makes clear it has also taken a profound toll on people and communities with the misfortune to sit atop the Marcellus deposits. Sometimes I think the recipe for a happy life is to make sure there's nothing valuable under your soil."—Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet

"Under the Surface makes sure we hear from those who support development of the Marcellus Shale formation, as well as the skeptics. But it is hard not to be moved by the testimony it gathers from ordinary citizens already hurt by the methane explosions, foul groundwater, and other damage. . . . As a former regulator, it is hard for me to read how little our government agencies have done—or been able to do—to make sure that our health and natural resources aren't shortchanged as this industry continues to grow."—Eric Schaffer, former director of EPA’s Office of Civil Enforcement.

"Tom Wilber covered the shale story for the Binghamton newspaper for years, and grounds it in the setting of both Pennsylvania and New York politics."—New York Review of Books

"Wilber describes the human and geologic drama along the New York/Pennsylvania border and its effects on people, land, water, air, politics, and economies. The narrative revolves around the area's geologic history, mineral and property rights, corporate actions, government regulations (or lack thereof), human and environmental health issues, social networks, and economic realities. The cast of advance men, scientists, cheerleaders, locals, corporate CEOs, accidental activists, politicians, and bureaucrats step off the page to meet readers. The interplay of their words and actions tells the often sad but sometimes positive story of people and politics in a world that demands ever-increasing amounts of energy. Recommended to all readers curious about the backstory of an important, ongoing public drama."—Library Journal

"Tom Wilber's new book reads like a character-driven novel as it tells the stories of the winners and losers, industry leaders and regulators on the new frontier of shale gas. . . . Wilber doesn't push an agenda but tries to maintain a journalist's objectivity and attention to detail from all angles."—Associated Press

"If you're new to the fracking debate, and even if you have a strong working knowledge of this issue, you will come away having learned something new. Wilber provides a thoughtful, and carefully researched, look at the upsides, as well as the potentially catastrophic downsides, of the impact this new form of gas drilling could have on one of the world’s most pristine watersheds."—Chronogram Magazine

"With a journalist's command of the facts and a novelist's eye for his subjects, Tom Wilber takes us to the living rooms, farms, meeting halls, and mountain streams where the fracking drama plays out daily. This is the grimy side of the American Dream, twenty-first century style—the economy vs. the environment, energy vs. water, human vs. corporation. Wilber spent more than three years researching and writing this book. His ease of storytelling, language, and explanation are a welcome guide through a complex topic. Alongside the land rush, gold rush, railroad boom, and oil boom, Under the Surface is an essential chapter in an American story that too often pits homestead and community against the building of the nation."—John Cronin, senior fellow at Pace and Clarkson Universities, former Hudson Riverkeeper, and coauthor of The Riverkeepers

About the Author

Tom Wilber, a journalist, author, and teacher, has spent years interviewing key players and local residents on all sides of the controversial issue of developing the country's energy supplies through the controversial process of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." He worked as a reporter covering business, health, and environmental issues for Gannett Corporation's Central New York Newspaper Group (including the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin) for seventeen years. He is now a freelance journalist and blogger for Shale Gas Review, tomwilber.blogspot.com.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press; 1 edition (May 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0801450160
  • ISBN-13: 978-0801450167
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #442,023 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
28 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Diverse voices weave a compelling story May 21, 2012
I was a bit cautious about Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale, worrying that a book on this topic by a journalist would mix fake objectivity with overly simple stories. I underestimated Wilber, though. Under the Surface achieves something better than the usual journalistic "and that's the way it is" or "he said, she said". Wilber's own voice comes through regularly to explain the big picture, and sometimes to explain his participation in a conversation or event, but most of the book is told through other people's voices. Perhaps most important, he chose a diverse enough group of voices that the book manages to avoid a simple pro- and anti-fracking polarization.

The divide is there, and it grows over the course of the book, but he doesn't start there. By starting before fracking became an intense political issue and following a few key groups of people over time, he presents a much more complex and useful story. It's not clear at the beginning which way many participants will go, or how strongly. There are some major surprises in there, and enough sympathetic characters that many points of view can come across well.

Whether you're a fracking opponent or a supporter, you should be able to find sympathetic characters in the book. I doubt a drilling supporter would read this book the same way that I did, and that's probably a good thing. I don't see the farmers trying to decide the future of their land or people trying to figure out how to survive in a place with contaminated water as villains.

There are two groups of characters, however, who generally come off looking terrible: the gas companies themselves and the regulators.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Cautionary Tale on Fracking September 26, 2012
Tom Wilber is a reporter who has followed the story of the Marcellus shale issue since 1999. His book unfolds like a mystery novel as the characters - landowners, landmen, legislators, entrepreneurs, corporate executives, environmental activists and others - interact in the diverging narratives of "fracking" in the Twin Tiers of New York and Pennsylvania. As a good journalist, Wilber is not arguing the case for or against fracking. Instead he gives us the "who, what, where, when" and the basic information that we need to understand the "why" of the boom (and, perhaps, the first signs of a bust) of slick water horizontal hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania versus the continuing moratorium on this process in New York. For those of us in Ohio, this is a valuable cautionary tale. A thread running through the entire book is the contrast between two geologists - Terry Engelder of Penn State and Anthony "Tony" Ingraffea of Cornell - who exemplify the two sides of the fundamental dispute, "Should fracking be banned?" Whichever side one takes in the debate, Wilber's diligence in uncovering how drilling companies and regulatory agencies actually function provides ample evidence for distrusting that even the best set of rules can make fracking safe. Calculating the cost/benefit ratio of fracking is up to the reader.

David Margolick's back cover blurb says it well: "UNDER THE SURFACE represents a kind of reportorial fracking, in which the indefatigable Tom Wilber bores in to extract how the process has an impact on those atop or near that gas." For people in communities about to be impacted by fracking - or trying to prevent fracking - Wilber's book is a "must read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GUSHING WITH PRAISE June 4, 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Well, maybe not gushing, but this was a very good book. It explains the good, the bad, and the ugly of the new "fracking" technology which makes possible the extraction of natural gas from previously unusable shale. The author has done thorough research, talking with people in the industry, in politics, and on farms who were directly affected by this new approach to "developing" our natural resources. There is a lot of information, but the author has a good narrative style, and the story pulls you along. He makes a good effort to remain objective, but it becomes clear that his sympathies lie with the landowners who have been abused by unethical oil companies. The author does make the point that many oil companies have been ethical and careful. Reading this book will give you helpful understanding of fracking generally and of the Marcellus Shale issues in particular. Since fracking is already having an enormous economic impact in America, it is worth learning about.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book every Environmental Regulator should read September 17, 2012
By Michael
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
As a environmental regulator, I found this book to be quite informative. I definately expanded my knowledge of horizontal drilling and fracturing beyond what I already knew. I also think it is a useful book to help remind regulators about who they are working for that citizens and landowners sometimes just want someone to listen.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic! One of the best books on fracking! March 21, 2013
Excellent book! Not biased for or against fracking. I have read many books on fracking. This book tells a lot about the players in the industry and the facts. I bought this book, the kindle edition. Very nice to read, esp. on the ipad.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Objective portrait of contentious topic
This is a broader analysis of the natural gas industry than "The End of Country" although it includes some of the same Northeastern Pennsylvania property owners whose personal... Read more
Published 4 months ago by jem
4.0 out of 5 stars Very informative!
This is a very detailed recounting of how fracking came to Pennsylvania and New York states. It gives both pro and anti - fracking arguments. Read more
Published 6 months ago by boomergirl
5.0 out of 5 stars If you drink water or know someone who does, you need to read this...
This book is a fantastic education on the details associated with Fracking in Pensylvania on the Marcellus Shale. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Scott Herb H
5.0 out of 5 stars the best information I have seen
My thanks to Author Mr. Wilber. I bought two books because I wanted our local library to have one. Everyone needs to read and understand the consequences of this issue. Mr. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Barbara J. Weedawagner
5.0 out of 5 stars Review
If you live near an area where natural gas fracking is going on, and fail to read this well-researched, objective book, you are doing yourself and future generations a great... Read more
Published 15 months ago by David E. Arnold
5.0 out of 5 stars Comprehensive coverage
I have been following and compiling statistics on "fracking" to use to help educate people of the serious risks of pumping trillions of gallons of poisonous chemicals into the... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Night Fire
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent even-handed discussion
This seems to be an even-handed description of the fracking which has already taken place, both in the past, and more recently in PA. Read more
Published 16 months ago by Ms. Dorothy Patashnick
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific book-- very readable with good information
This is a terrific book. It is very readable with engaging text and good information.
Wilber brings in all his journalistic skills to reveal the underbelly of fracking.
Published 18 months ago by Catherine L. Reed
4.0 out of 5 stars Changed my mind
Gave me a better understanding of gas shale development. In east. Wonder how it compares to development of Barnett shale in Texas
Published 19 months ago by pheasler
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