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

Saturday, February 25th, 2012

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?

(More below the fold…)