Book Review: Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage, Stephanie Hamel (2011)

February 25th, 2012 1:25 pm by Kelly Garbato

Note to readers: Full disclosure – I received free copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.

Note to self: Never never ever again will you request from LT an environmental book written by a non-vegan. Nothing good ever comes of it.

Clever title, but this marriage was already fracked.

two out of five stars

Suppose a natural gas company offered you a small fortune to lease your land for exploration and possible drilling. Would you do it? What if all your neighbors had already signed on, thus transforming your small, idyllic “home away from home” into one giant construction zone, complete with road-clogging traffic and the ceaseless noise of drills and pumps? Further imagine that the energy company has the legal right to extract gas trapped under your property – without your consent – if it drills horizontally from a neighboring property, thus making your “sacrifice” all but futile.

Author Stephanie Hamel doesn’t have to imagine such a scenario; she’s lived it. In Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (2011), she explores the ethical, emotional, and practical implications she and her family faced when offered to lease their fifty acres of farmland in north central Pennsylvania to a natural gas company at $2500 an acre. Hamel’s parents had purchased the land when she was just a girl, to serve as a vacation home. (“Camp,” they called it. I can relate; my father recently inherited a small cabin in the Adirondacks, similarly bought and built by his parents when he was just a kid. A multi-generational family project, you could call it.) Hamel’s childhood is peppered with memories of escaping to this rural oasis, where her family played at part-time farming, landscaping, and construction work. The existing buildings were old and ramshackle, and required much repair and maintenance. While this might not sound like much of a vacation, Hamel’s clan tackled these projects with much gusto – together. Consequently, the land holds a special significance for Hamel; and so, when her father passed away, she decided to purchase the property from her mother, to keep it in the family, and to carry on the traditions she so enjoyed as a child with her own children.

In 2008, an unnamed natural gas company approached Hamel – and many of the other property owners in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania – about leasing her land for gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing. A relatively new procedure in 2008, “fracking” has met with greater opposition in recent years. Among other things, fracking is associated with groundwater contamination, air pollution, the mishandling of toxic waste – and perhaps even earthquakes. Though most of Hamel’s neighbors quickly signed up – many without so much as consulting a lawyer – Hamel dragged her feet. When rumors of drilling began circulating through Wellsboro in early 2008, Hamel was staunchly opposed to drilling. However, as gossip materialized into a pricey contract that fall, she began to waffle: with her husband’s job on the ropes, they could really use the money. Plus she could donate some of the windfall to environmental organizations. Surely this could help to offset any damage done during drilling? And if the gas company could extract gas without her permission anyhow (via the “Law of Capture”), wouldn’t it be foolish not to take the money? Besides, with all her neighbors jumping on the bandwagon, the town was already being sullied by traffic and noise pollution. Complicating matters further was her husband Tom, who welcomed the drilling as a financial boon – hence the titular “fracking of a marriage.”

While this all but promises to make for a compelling read, the result is anything but. Hamel largely based this memoir on a diary she kept during this time – and it shows. (Cue Sarah Silverman’s rant about diaries in her own autobiography, Diary of a Bedwetter: “Unvisited tombstones, unread diaries, and erased video game high-score rankings are three of the most potent symbols of mankind’s pathetic and fruitless attempts at immortality.” No one wants to read your diary – yourself included.) Although there is some useful information to be found in Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage – concerning, for example, the legal issues involved in drilling, as well as the possible health effects of fracking – these bits are few and far between. (Indeed, the entire reference section consists of just three items. THREE! Why bother?) This is especially disappointing given the author’s background: though currently a stay-at-home mom, Hamel holds a BS in Chemistry and a joint PhD in Exposure Assessment and Environmental Sciences. You’d think she’d be uniquely qualified to comment on the subject, no?

Instead, the bulk of the book follows Hamel as she waffles back and forth between different alternatives: to drill or not to drill. Accept a surface lease or try to negotiate for a subsurface lease. Take the money and run or use it for the greater good. Etcetera. Not that I have a problem with waffling, mind you – dog knows I do plenty of it myself – but it becomes terribly tedious after just 20 pages, let alone 200. Halfway through you’ll be begging her to make a decision either way; just please, make it stop!

Unsurprisingly, the difference of opinion between Hamel and her husband placed further strain on what struck me as an already unsteady marriage. Other reviewers have jumped on Hamel for her tone toward Tom, calling her “bitter” and “mean-spirited”; however, I thought that she was pulling her punches, if anything. Their marriage plays like a bad 1950s sitcom, with Tom spending most of his free time at the golf course, leaving his wife to almost single-handedly care for their home and their children. (Some weekends saw her vacation with the children alone, while Tom stayed at home and golfed when he was supposed to be working.) The gas lease quickly brings them to an impasse, where disagreements can be grasped but not bridged. Though Tom ostensibly left the decision up to her, he was anything but gracious about it: he mocked her in front of their family, friends, and neighbors; he instigated needless arguments; he even issued vague threats about resentment and what it might cause him to do. (Best case scenario: spend all weekend, every weekend – for the rest of his life – playing golf, with the expectation that she would not, could not object. Neglecting your children? That’ll show her!)

But wait! There’s more! Tom doesn’t “believe” in climate change. (“Believe” in scare quotes, as though climate change is a mythical entity, like Santa Claus or God. But the Hamels are a church-going family, so one can assume that Tom believes in the latter.) Recall that his wife Stephanie is an environmental scientist, and marvel at the hows and whys of their coupling.

Lest you think that I’m biased in favor of the woman, I find Stephanie equally irritating (in that special way that meat-eating environmentalists almost always are!). Faced with Tom’s accusation of hypocrisy – for opposing the drilling on environmental grounds while still engaging in other environmentally harmful behaviors (as though society really allows us much of a choice) – Stephanie begins to reexamine different aspects of her life. She researches hybrid cars, considers installing solar panels on the vacation home, tries to recycle and buy second-hand items as much as possible. All laudable goals – but not once during her environmental hand-wringing does she look to the one area of her daily routine that offers the potential for the most change: her plate.

Wait, that’s not entirely fair; Hamel does grow some of her own food, and tries to buy organic products when possible. Organic foods including (wait for it!) meat, cheese, and dairy (le sigh).

To wit:

Aware of these challenges, I made more careful choices when I bought food from the store. “What am I going to do with that smelly plastic pad that lines the meat carton?” Maybe we wouldn’t eat meat this weekend. (page 95)

That plastic pad? It’s the least of your problems. According to none other than the United Nations (bunny-hugging vegans they are not), livestock farming generates 18% of the planet’s total greenhouse gas emissions (possibly more than transport), generates nitrous oxide and methane (both of which have a greater global warming effect than carbon dioxide; 296 and 23 times, respectively), is an inefficient use of both land and resources (livestock dominate approximate 1/3 of the planet’s land mass), and results in air and water pollution. Says Rajendra Pachauri , the head of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “In terms of immediacy of action and the feasibility of bringing about reductions in a short period of time, it [a plant-based diet] clearly is the most attractive opportunity.”

And, on using a grill powered by natural gas:

As I stared at the gas grill, I realized: I want to use natural gas for my grilled chicken, but I don’t want to have the drilling rigs for that gas in my backyard. (page 81)

Again, replacing the chicken flesh with vegetables and plant-based “meats” is a more tenable – and arguably effective – solution. Living as we do in a global, interconnected world, we simply don’t have control over all aspects of our life; for many of us, including the Hamels, mealtime offers three opportunities a day to effect real, positive change.

If only!

That night I served hot dogs for dinner. It was the best I could do, I who used to think, before I had children of my own, so ill of the lazy moms who served them rather than making some homemade vegetarian wonder dish. All I can say is, at least mine are organic hot dogs with no nitrates, those being associated with stomach cancer. (page 97)

Two words: Smart Dogs. Much like non-vegan food, vegan fare need not always be a complicated, elaborate ordeal.

On fantasizing about farming her own food:

“Even so, a garden wouldn’t be enough. We would want chickens, for their eggs and meat.” I stopped my whispered musings, paling at the thought. I have seen chickens flapping around after their heads were chopped off. It was a bloody mess. I am happy to leave the butchering to others. (page 58)

Note the use of “want” versus “need”: “we would want chickens, for their eggs and meat.” This is an important distinction, and underscores the points made above. Meat, eggs, and dairy are for many people a convenience, a luxury – not a matter of survival. In attempting to reduce one’s carbon footprint, then, it’s inexcusable not to forgo these items, both from an environmental and (as hinted at in the second half of this excerpt) an animal welfare (if not animal rights) perspective. Why exploit and kill sentient beings when there’s no need, when doing so has grave environmental consequences, and when alternatives abound?

On a friend who “farms” cows:

Karen and Ralph Watson returned my call. Karen is an old college chum and Ralph, her husband, is a full-time farmer who supplements his income by laying natural gas pipelines part-time. He is a big man, quiet and gentle, who only throws cows around by their tails when necessary. (page 101)

How lovely, he sounds like a gem. I’m sure those cows were asking for it.

I could go on, but suffice to say that Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage is, like many environmental books authored by non-vegans, riddled with instances of casual speciesism. Occasionally I’m willing to suffer through these indignities – but only if I’m dazzled by the rest of the book. Not so in this case.

In the end, there is no real resolution to this story. The Hamels were first offered the lease in September 2008; not long afterwards, the recession hit. After several months of arguing, the couple finally agreed to see if Tom could negotiate for a subsurface lease, but by this time the company, given the economic climate, was trying to back out of existing leases. The book trails off in December 2008 with the couple still at odds, leaving open the question of what might happen if and when the company resumes drilling in the future. There’s a short epilogue, absent any real updates, dated 2011 – and that’s it. Anti-climactic, to say the least. (Yes, this also means that most of the book’s 226 pages span just four short months. Like I said, TEDIOUS.)

As she’s writing her memoir, Hamel is dismayed to learn that Josh Fox, when similarly offered a lease, turned his experience into a documentary called GasLand; she’s been scooped! She notes that Fox takes a different tack; while she, “confined at home,” was more “introspective,” Fox toured the country to examine the potential adverse health effects of fracking. Do yourself a favor: rent a copy of GasLand instead.

This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads; please vote it helpful if you enjoyed it!

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3 Responses to “Book Review: Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage, Stephanie Hamel (2011)”

  1. peace Says:

    You should also post your reviews to Goodreads.

  2. Kelly Garbato Says:

    You know, I should. I do have an account there, after all!

  3. Book Review: White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, Aaron Bobrow-Strain (2012) » V for Vegan: easyVegan.info Says:

    […] in so many books written by non-vegan environmentalists (culminating in the particularly awful Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage), I promised myself that I’d stop requesting such items from Library Thing, no matter how […]

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