Drilling into the Past and the Future: Layers of Time on the Marcellus Shale

“In the center of the town there is an attractive park known as ‘The Green’ which was deeded to the county in 1806 by Benjamin Wister Morris, the founder of Wellsboro.  This is faced on the west by the Tioga County Courthouse…on the north by the Baptist church, on the east by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, and on the south by the church of the Seventh Day Adventists”—Elfriede Elisabeth Ruppert, A Historical and Folklore Tour of the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon, 1964.

The Green is a kind of time machine.  It may be 2010, but gas lamps still glow day and night on the Green and along Wellsboro’s Main Street.  I can look across the soft, carefully watered grass and see St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, just as travel writer Elfriede Ruppert did fifty years ago.  From the Green, I can see the Tioga County Courthouse, where, in the Office of the Recorder of Deeds I might find the sheet of paper signed by Benjamin Wister Morris, the sheet of paper granting this square block of grass and trees to the town of Wellsboro.

Benjamin Wister Morris’s deed, preserved for 200 years, may have been one of the many documents recently skimmed and handled by the “deedsearchers”—local landowners and oil and gas industry researchers—who have spent the last few years scouring the county archives to trace the complex movements of property lines and mineral rights through generations of heirs, buyers, and lessees.  According to Tioga County Planner Jim Weaver, the deedsearchers have worn the county’s paper files to shreds.  Before drillers can extract natural gas from the 360 million year old Marcellus shale formation, they must first extract property information from three centuries of county archives.  Deedsearchers and shale drillers both bring the past into the present moment.

During the eight weeks I spent researching the impact of Marcellus Shale natural gas development on communities in Tioga County, I began to sense that to consider the Marcellus Shale is to consider the ways that different understandings of time can unfold in connection with money, place, and property.  Many of the conflicts caused by the natural gas development boom in the region can be traced to conflicting understandings of time: industry time, agricultural time, geologic time, and government time all operate differently.  To look Tioga County in the midst of its “natural gas boom” is to look at a proliferation—a boom–of different understandings of time.

The Wellsboro Green has been carefully designed and maintained to feel like a place that time forgot, yet just beyond the gas lamps, gravel trucks, water tankers, dump trucks, and the ubiquitous “industry” white pickups clog Main Street, rumbling at the red light, growling and accelerating as the light turns green.  Is this the future of Wellsboro?  Or is it the past?  Looking at the traffic, I think of the pine, and–later hemlock–logs that jammed nearby Pine Creek during the logging industry’s boom in the 1890’s.   Today, tourists canoe down Pine Creek and gaze up at the green walls of the gorge; they point their paddles down into the water, down toward the Marcellus shale which holds a wealth of natural gas a mile beneath them.  It is the spinal cord of what some call the “Big Woods,” the forested region in north-central Pennsylvania that in turn is perhaps the area of “Pennsylvania Wilds” that evokes in remnant form (even as largely new-growth forests) for many people the vast and primordial Penn’s Woods that once gave the commonwealth its name.

This view of the Pine Creek Gorge from Barbour Rock is located in another common, public space—the Tioga State Forest—named for Samuel Barbour, who died in a log jam on Pine Creek in the 1890’s.

Jim Weaver tells me about the future of Tioga County by telling me about the distant past.  We sit in his office in the Planning Department in the County Courthouse, surrounded by brightly-colored maps indicating the locations of existing natural gas wells and well permits.  Even the newest maps quickly become outdated as what the locals call “the industry” obtains new permits and drills new wells with increasing speed.  Yet despite, or perhaps because of, the frantic pace of an industry eager to capitalize on natural gas while prices are high, Jim’s perspective on the gas drilling is deeply historical.  He begins our conversation by re-telling the story of the “discovery” of the Americas, likening the natural gas boom to the conquest of people, places and resources that characterizes the past 500 years of global history.  If he had a time machine, he says, he’d go back
to 1472 and have a serious conversation with Pope Nicholas V who decreed the principle of discovery and gave any Catholic Christian from Europe the authority to claim for his own whatever he discovered.  It didn’t matter who was there; it didn’t matter if anybody else laid claim to it.  With all the infrastructure [the Europeans] brought with them, the diseases and the [invasive] plants… they just took it over, and it’s still going on.  East Resources [thinks] “ooh, we could lease all this property.” And the next thing you know, it’s theirs.  The farmers didn’t know what they were doing when they signed these leases that essentially gave the farm to the company—and [now] the company can do what they want.

What “the company” wants to do is extract, process, transport and sell the natural gas trapped in the Marcellus shale, the 360 million year old rock formation buried a mile beneath the canoeing tourists, beneath the fountain on the Green, beneath the dairy cows browsing in farmers’ pastures—and to do this quickly, before natural gas prices go down.

Yet the process of natural gas extraction is more abstract, less tangible, than the process of conquest and settlement initiated by Pope Nicholas V.  Today, it’s not the land we want, not the shale itself, but the invisible gas that lurks in the spaces where earth isn’t, in the pores and pockets, the folds and fissures of the shale.  We can’t even see this invisible substance until we light it on fire and exhaust it of its power.  To whom does this invisible wealth that we call energy belong?  It’s no wonder the paper deeds are crumbling as we widen the fractures in the shale with high-pressure jets of water and wait for the freed gas to rise into our traps; the development of the Marcellus shale calls attention to the fact that ownership has always been an abstraction.  Not surprisingly, the industry’s future job projections include more realtors and lawyers than scientists, more professionals versed in the abstraction that is “property” than scientific data.

To deal with the Marcellus shale is to deal with the invisible, to deal in abstractions and questions as much as it is to deal with the tangible, observable effects of rapid industrial development in a rural county: the
roads crumbling beneath the weight of water tankers and heavy equipment, the miles of gleaming pipeline winding along an access road in the Tioga State Forest, the coffee cups clattering on the kitchen counter as industry surveyors conduct seismic testing, as surveyors use sound to see.  The Marcellus shale—a big, heavy, tangible rock—reveals that time, place, and money, things we often take for granted as concrete realities, are also abstract concepts that depend on subjective interests and points of view.

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