What the Frack? Energy and Environment
(Fall 2012 - Volume 25, Number 3) By Angene Wilson
Several years ago landsmen began stopping by our family farm in north-central Ohio or calling me on the phone. They wanted us to sign a lease to allow drilling for oil and gas. On some farms not too far away there were old shallow oil wells. However, we knew that after this new drilling deep into the Utica Shale, the energy company would use a process called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” for short. Fracking involves a specially blended liquid of water and chemicals (some potentially hazardous) that is pumped into a well under extreme pressure causing cracks in the underground rock formation, thus allowing oil and natural gas to flow. Members of our family attended meetings as local landowners began to organize to learn about the promise and problems of the new energy rush and to get the best deal. Instead of leases at $50 an acre, $500 an acre was being offered and we heard that in eastern Ohio landowners had gotten as much as $2,500 an acre plus 12% to 18% royalties. We also knew about problems with fracking in the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. For instance, what were the chemicals being used?
We decided not to sign a lease. We were concerned about the impact on our water – our two wells and our creek — and we were concerned about land disruption because of the size of equipment, of the pad, and of the road into the pad. These were not the small wells of our grandparents’ era. We had our water wells tested in early February 2012 on the same day drilling was occurring on a farm about a mile from ours, the first new well in our county. At night the lit-up rig was a spectacular sight in an area where about half the farmers are Amish or Mennonite and the sky is usually dark. In April the well was fracked using water from our nearby village’s treated waste water. The well extended about 3,400 feet vertically and 4,000 feet horizontally. In August the company announced that results were disappointing and they would drill farther east in Ohio.
So. . . my personal experience kicked in when I saw the WorldView magazine article entitled “Tour de Frack: Couple apply Peace Corps lessons to a controversial environmental issue here at home.”
Objective: Students use a variety of resources to learn about the issue of fracking and more broadly discuss U.S. energy policy relating to natural gas and then exercise their role as citizens by writing a letter to the President, Presidential candidate or a state or local official.
- WorldView article “Tour de Frack,”
- “Kuwait on the Prairie: Can North Dakota solve the energy problem?” New Yorker, April 25, 2011,
- The End of Country by Seamus McGraw (in paperback and he has a website),
- FracFocus website, Oil & Gas Accountability Project at Earthworks website, and many other online sources.
Procedure: Ask students to read the WorldView article, “Tour de Frack,” and look at accompanying pictures on NPCA website and on the Tour de Frack website. Then discuss questions:
- “What is happening in rural eastern Pennsylvania?
- What concerns beyond water quality were mentioned in the article?
- What is meant by industrialization of a rural area – truck traffic, noise of machinery as examples?
- Why did Jill and Jason decide to do a bicycle tour?
- What did they do in Washington DC and how were they received?
- Have any of you seen the anti-fracking film “Gasland?” If so, what did it show?
- Why is the book, Stories from the Shalefields, important for their cause?
- What do the bicycle trip organizers see as parallels between what is happening in their rural community in Pennsylvania and what they saw in Latin America where they served as Peace Corps volunteers?
- Is fracking an issue in your part of the country?
If possible use the excellent book The End of Country in some way (teacher has read for background, all students read, several students read and report) to set the scene of fracking for natural gas, describe real people in the real situation, and make the issue more complex.
- Why might some people decide to sign a lease? If you are a struggling farmer who would like to buy a new tractor or even go on a holiday or heat your own house more cheaply?
- Why might some people see the jobs the natural gas boom is creating as opportunities? If you are a worker again employed because the company that laid you off is now making steel casings for the drilling equipment? Or if you have a job because of the oil boom in North Dakota?
- What are the possibilities as well as the problems of this energy rush? Natural gas is considered cleaner than coal or oil, for example. Abundant natural gas also gives the U.S. an opportunity to rely less on other countries for energy.
Divide students into small groups to do research and report what they have learned to the whole class. Challenge each group to come up with three “learnings” and three questions they have after their research plus an analysis of the objectivity/subjectivity of the resources. Alternatively, give all students a list that includes these resources and challenge them to use a variety of resources and others they discover to share three “learnings” and three questions with classmates. In the ensuing class discussion move to talking about energy policy more broadly and implications for your state or region and for the nation. Also ask: How does our energy policy relate to our environmental policy? How do both relate to our foreign policy and our interactions with the rest of the world?
Group 1: Look at the map on the FracFocus website, put in state and county, and find the wells closest to your area. (I found the well near our farm very quickly.) This website is sponsored by the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission; its claim to fame is that more than 200 companies have listed more than 26,000 wells with the chemicals used in the fracking liquid. The website also includes documents such as a research paper entitled “The Impact of Marcellus Gas Drilling on Rural Drinking Water Supplies” and “Corrections to the Film Gasland” from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, regulations in various states, and frequently asked questions such as Where does the water used in hydraulic fracturing come from? Can hydraulic fracturing fluid migrate into a fresh groundwater zone?
Group 3: Read “Kuwait on the Prairie” New Yorker article and USA Today travel article “Badlands balance beauty, oil boom” online and search for more information online – for example, look at jobs website like oilnorthdakota.com.
Group 5: Look at the website for the award-winning documentary “Gasland” and their frequently asked questions and answers and then at America’s Natural Gas Alliance website, anga.us/TruthaboutGasland.
Group 6: Look up Barack Obama’s 2012 State of Union address and his address at the Democratic Convention to see what he says about energy policy, and especially natural gas. Look at Republican Party website for their energy policy, especially natural gas.
Assessment: Ask students to write a letter to either President Obama or Presidential candidate Romney or a local or state official stating and supporting their opinion about U.S. energy policy, particularly natural gas.