What would it take for you to turn down $150,000? Would you walk away from that money to protect the environment or the social good?
I recently went home to western Pennsylvania, ground zero in the hydraulic fracturing (known as fracking) wars. In winter, western Pennsylvania is gray and cold, with bare tree branches framed against gloomy winter skies like a setting for a movie you know will end badly. In the summer, though, western Pennsylvania is leafy and green and the hills really are rolling and mountain laurels bloom. It’s a restful, beautiful, lushly verdant landscape, like a setting for a movie you know will end happily, replete with true love and an upbeat song that brings a sentimental tear.
In the late 70s and early 80s, during a different recession, the country abandoned western Pennsylvania. It was then that the steel industry—an industry so strongly linked to the region that Pittsburgh is called the Steel City, the football team is the Steelers, and the local brew was called Iron City—collapsed.
I can see that an immense tragedy is unfolding in the "Mon Valley," as it is known to the people who live here. The industry is now operating at only slightly more than 30 percent of capacity, close to the record low of the Depression. Some twenty thousand steelworkers, or about two-thirds of the work force in the Mon Valley, are laid off. Most will never work again in a steel plant. The almost legendary mill towns in the valley—Homestead, Rankin, Braddock, Duquesne, McKeesport, Clairton, Monessen—are being drained of their life's blood.
From John P. Hoerr’s Collapse of the Steel Industry, 1982
(It’s a beautiful piece. Read it here.)
Presaging what would happen to the American auto industry, western Pennsylvania suffered massive layoffs and plant closures. In 1983, the regional unemployment rate was 18.3 percent. Like Detroit of today, Pittsburgh suffered a mass exodus, losing a large percentage of its population. Even today, its population is down almost 50 percent from its high. The term “Steeler Nation” was born to encompass those many rabid Steeler fans with deep roots in western Pennsylvania who now live elsewhere. Unlike Detroit, there was no coordinated effort to save the city; no documentary crews every two steps filming the destruction; no bail out; little attention from the rest of the country over the plight of those who once had a polka as the fight song for its football team.
In the hills and small towns that surround Pittsburgh, it was even bleaker. Always a place of hardscrabble living—both in the mills and in the mines—it became even poorer. And like most rust belt regions, it was hard hit by the current recession.
While in western Pennsylvania, I picked up the Tribune-Review (owned by extreme right-winger Richard Mellon Scaife) because it’s the paper my mother receives. On the front page was a story of landowners who leased their land early to gas companies such as Chevron for rock bottom prices. They feel they have been conned and want to get the going rate – which, according to the Trib, currently averages $3,000 per acre. With royalties.
It’s easy for those who live in cities faraway to oppose fracking. For them, it’s abstract. They fight with soaring rhetoric and online petitions against fracking and for good reason. But they don’t have to make the hard decision. When the devil comes for the soul of western Pennsylvania, it’s easy for those not living there to make it a black and white issue of right vs. wrong.
But the devil operates in the gray areas.
Let’s do the math for a small farm that has 50 acres the gas companies want: $3,000 x 50 = $150,000 signing fee. After that, they receive around 18 percent in royalty payments. For a family who most likely lives paycheck to paycheck, who has a good chance of not having health insurance, and which maybe would just like that new car they’ve been wanting for the last 15 years, that’s the financial equivalent of winning the lottery.
Western Pennsylvanians are no stranger to the ravages of the energy extraction industry. From oil to the omnipresent coal, they’ve been there, done that. It’s not that they don’t love their land and want to protect it. But can they reasonably be expected to walk away from a perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make their families financially secure? What have they been offered in return from those who oppose fracking? Not much.
On my trip, my cousin took me around her small town and pointed out the farms that had leased to Chevron. Rumor has it that the farm where the main fracking facility will be located will be getting really big dollars—$10,000 per acre signing fee was the number being whispered.
My high school is currently in negotiations to lease the land behind its football field. After years of steep budget cuts and losses of funding, fracking money is an unexpected but desperately needed windfall.
At my uncle’s, we watched deer and wild turkey bound through the yard. The dogwoods were blooming. My uncle has sold off a lot of his land but, like any savvy landowner, kept the mineral rights. Intellectually, I understand and support those who oppose fracking, but like many, I remember the indifference of the past and the years of struggle. Despite my liberal leanings, my years working with environmental organizations, I can’t help but to think of how much easier life would be for all of us if a gas company showed up and offered us money that would pay off student loans and mortgages and car notes and provide that elusive, but so comforting. financial cushion.
The devil dresses well and has a lovely smile and is offering something no one else has. You can’t blame western Pennsylvania landowners for hearing him out.