Reporter Relays Experience with Fracking Industry

Madeline Stocker

Concerned students, professors and numerous community members gathered Monday, April 8, to hear Tim Wilber’s lecture on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking. Wilber, author and self-proclaimed “old-school journalist,” focused his lecture not only on anti-fracking techniques, but also on the social influences of hydraulic drilling.

This lecture comes at a critical time, as many in Oberlin currently stand in opposition to state legislation prohibiting citizen control over the location of fracking sites.

John Elder, co-chair of Kendal at Oberlin Residents Association Council, member of Communities for Safe and Sustainable Energy and former Oberlin trustees, put Wilber’s mention of lack of regulatory control into a more local perspective.

“Although the Ohio Constitution gives local municipalities powers,” said Elder, “the Ohio legislature, lobbied by the gas and oil industry, passed a law that overrules local control so that we no longer have any power to say whether there will or will not be fracking pipelines or any other buildup of the fracking industry anywhere in our community,” he said.

College sophomore Rachel Berkrot echoed these concerns, putting part of the responsibility for environmental sustainability into the hands of Oberlin students.

“I hope that talks such as this can serve as a wake-up call to Oberlin College,” said Berkrot.  “In the next few years Oberlin will be transitioning to natural gas to heat our campus. The College has expressed little concern over the fact that this natural gas will come from fracking and that this will be extremely detrimental to local communities. Tom Wilber’s talk on Monday was attended by many community members. Fracking is an issue that clearly concerns many people in the Oberlin community, and this needs to be addressed in the College’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025.”

Wilber, who covered the Marcellus and Utica shale gas development as a reporter, approached the issue of hydraulic fracturing from a social perspective, focusing on its history, market dynamics, home rule and the influence of national, federal and local politics on drilling regulations.

“I don’t have a position on whether the merits of fracking outweigh the risks,” claimed Wilber mid-speech. “I understand both arguments; there are great rewards of fracking. There are risks to fracking. But I do have a very strong issue with transparency. As a journalist, this often puts me on the same side as the anti-frackers, and sometimes I have to explain to them … that really I’m not, but I am for the idea of transparency. I’m an old-school journalist; the idea of muckraking is a powerful thing to me. … I think that if people are well-informed, then they will choose the right path regardless.”

Wilber began his talk by explaining how and why the fracking process began, much of which he read aloud from his book Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale.

“This was never really a story until one day we learned that a group of farmers in Broom County leased their land to a company called XTO Energy for 110 million dollars. And everybody woke up. This went from being just another story to the story,” Wilber quoted from this book.

This new method of money making galvanized a “bona fide rush” of landowners to engage in such contracts, as well as the emergence of skeptics.

Wilber’s impression of how most industries responded to dissenters was, “We don’t anticipate any significant emergencies,” a statement that elicited a peal of laughter from the audience.

Continuing to read from his book, Wilber then listed some events that made the dangers of fracking more transparent. He began with the story of a drilling explosion that occurred in 2009 in Dimock, PA.

“This became a high-visibility centerpiece, … push came to shove, and it all of a sudden made people aware that, ‘OK, there are perhaps some issues that go wrong with this.’ The [industry’s] line is: ‘There’s never been any contamination of water. There have never been any problems.’”

Other stories included a gas explosion that threw an Ohio home from its foundation, and various explosions that resulted in fatalities.

For many, this destruction warrants answers about how the fracking industry can “get away with it.”

In attempting to answer that question, Wilber said, “In 2005 the Bush-Cheney administration offered a bill, and buried in this bill was this one paragraph that said essentially that fracking was exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Now technically, fracking has never been EPA-regulated. It’s been left up to the states because natural gas development and mineral extraction tend to be state issues, because one state has it and the other state doesn’t. What’s interesting about the [Energy Policy Act of 2005] is somebody in the Bush-Cheney administration saw the writing on the wall that fracking was about to become a national phenomenon, so the language in the bill ensures that the oversight of fracking is not a federal issue; the EPA has no jurisdiction.”