— Few — if any in Wayne County — need to be told that hydraulic fracturing is a controversial means of extracting natural gas from the Marcellus Shale beneath our feet.
There are those convinced it can save the American economy and put thousands back to work in the worst economy since the Great Depression and that it could lead to energy independence for the country.
Then there are those who say the process is just too risky to public and environmental health, especially in this area, which millions depend on for their drinking water.
Two of the bigger names in this debate come from right here in Wayne County.
Tom Shepstone, well known as a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an industry lobbying group, resides in Honesdale. Filmmaker Josh Fox — whose film Gasland became known around the world after a famous scene depicting a Colorado man lighting the water from his kitchen faucet on fire went viral on the internet — is connected to the area through land his family owns in Damascus Township.
With both sides claiming to be winning the debate based on solid science and claiming the other’s science is flawed or misleading, we contacted both Fox and Shepstone to find out if either thought there was a possibility of finding middle ground.
It seems there is not.
“Some people are legitimately skeptical about some things,” Shepstone said, “For example, with the technology we have now, there’s no reason to drill in the Delaware River corridor.
There is some room for compromise here, but you can’t have a debate with people who grow more shrill by the day and are just absolutely uncompromising. It just won’t work.”
“If this was a legitimate debate,” Fox said, “Then let’s have a real debate on the science and the issues, but you can’t do that with them. They put their blinders on, they deny and they attack. That’s it. When I go to Weis or Wal-Mart, I have people coming up to me and screaming in my face, calling me a liar, all kinds of things. They are rude, bordering on violent.
“When the movie (Gasland) came out,” Fox went on, “The industry could have taken the information I presented and said, ‘Okay, we’ll look at these problems and try to find ways to fix them,’ but they didn’t. They simply decided to deny everything about it right off.”
When asked why he thought that was, Fox said it’s because the gas companies know his claims that the industry has a long track record of contaminating air, aquifers and groundwater and then simply moving on — as its own documents prove.
“If you do your own investigation,” Fox said, “You will see it’s an enormous problem. Gas wells leak at alarming rates. Drilling contaminates water and the industry knows it. Their own documents prove it. That’s what they can’t debate.”
The bottom line
While both parties claim the other is only out there for the money, Shepstone acknowledges drawing an industry paycheck for his pro-gas efforts.
“Fox isn’t any different than me,” he said, “His only motivation is for the bottom line. But he pretends otherwise. I don’t do that. But I do have tremendous sympathy for the landowners desperate to find a way to pay their taxes and hold onto their land. What do they have to make a living from? It’s this — without much impact at all. It’s not like a coal strip mine that ruins the land forever. This use is very compatible with farming. And the evidence simply isn’t there that methane migrates into aquifers as a result of fracking.”
For his part, Fox says the profit motive was not his reason for getting involved in the anti-fracking crowd. He says he simply started looking into the issue when neighbors began talking about drilling on their property and found enough disturbing information that he felt he had to share it with his community.
“I didn’t set out to do this,” he said, “I used my own money to make the film and I drove around the country sleeping in the backseat of my car. I just wanted to find out what was going on and share it with the community. The gas industry wasn’t telling them the truth and I felt someone had to.”
The people he met along the way, he said, are not activists bent on some sinister agenda as many claim, they are simply “regular people terrified of losing what they have had for generations. They are not activists.”