Illustration by Kyle Fewell
Ask someone like Jon Entine, a science writer for Ethical Corporation, to describe the sort of person who claims hydraulic fracturing presents a pollution nightmare in waiting, and you quickly find yourself pummeled with talk radio invective: "ideological blowhard," "leftist loony," "upper-middle-class lefties."
None of those labels apply to Fred Mayer.
When a reporter arrives at his 200-year-old farmhouse on a cloudy June day, one of the first things Mayer asks is, "Do you know who Glenn Beck is? You should really listen to him. Now that man knows what he's talking about."
The 62-year-old Vietnam vet's yard in Newark Valley, N.Y., is full of patriotic flags. His body is covered in tattoos, with barbed wire wrapped around his thick arms and an Iron Cross on his left fist.
The first time he heard of fracking was in 2008. It's a natural gas drilling process in which millions of gallons of water — mixed with sand and over 596 toxic chemicals — are pumped into shale formations 8,000 feet below ground, the pressure fracturing them to release the natural gas they hold inside.
Decades ago, Shell Oil attempted to drill on Mayer's property in hopes of retrieving the river of crude oil that resides just under the rock formation. "They never were able to do it," he says. "They couldn't get through the rock, so they gave up."
Shell eventually sold its lease to Fortuna Energy. Mayer thought nothing of it until 2008, when his neighbors started getting leasing offers from gas companies who had a new way of drilling that could get through the thick layers of shale just fine. This time they were in search of natural gas, often heralded as the greenest fossil fuel.
Mayer gave Fortuna a call, only to find that his father had leased their property for $4 an acre. Since his dad had passed away, Mayer told Fortuna that the agreement was null and void. Fortuna countered with a new offer: $600 an acre. Mayer soon received a check for $58,200, with a promise of more to come.
But it wasn't long before Mayer received another surprise — this one less pleasant. One morning he turned on his kitchen sink, and instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter and held it to the faucet, watching it burst into flames.
Though Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one actually came out to investigate.
"[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer's well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons," says Emily DeSantis, an agency spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer's residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but "naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state."
Mayer knew better. His water hadn't been flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can't drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it blasts coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes.
Still, Mayer was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time he signed his lease, then-Gov. David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monogahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.
As Mayer sees it, his water is already contaminated, and he could use his 17 percent cut of Fortuna's drilling profits. According to Public Policy Polling, about half of southern New Yorkers agree, hoping current Gov. Andrew Cuomo will lift the ban so they can begin reaping the riches promised by companies like Chesapeake Energy, Range Resources, Cabot, and Schlumberger.
It doesn't seem to matter that, over the past decade, fracking has left behind a widening trail of health and environmental disasters. Or that research indicates the influx of money and jobs promised by these companies falls far short of their claims. New York landowners still whisper stories of overnight millionaires just over the border.
People are desperate to flee the pressure of another disaster, the one created by the housing crash. Except fracking could imperil more than pocketbooks: There's no shortage of scientists and public health officials who warn that large-scale contamination may leave millions of people without usable water.
Yet the natural gas industry has spent $747 million lobbying state and federal officials over the last decade, allowing it to continue drilling in 34 states. Few Americans are any richer. But a whole lot more have horror stories to tell.
Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as a militant anti-fracking activist. Range Resources, one of the largest fracking firms in the nation, has even accused her of manufacturing false evidence in a conspiracy to defame the company.
But get Wilson on the phone, and you'll hear the sweet, commonsense voice of a Texas girl who happens to have a blog full of links to disaster stories, some of which she's experienced firsthand.
In 1995, Wilson moved from Fort Worth to Wise County, where she purchased 42 acres of land. "I gave up a great deal to move to the country, where I thought my children would enjoy clean air and clean living," she says.
Soon after Wilson arrived, so did Mitchell Energy. The company's owner, George Mitchell, had long known that a gold mine of natural gas lay deep beneath the shale that surrounds Fort Worth. He was dead set on getting it out, though geologists told him it was a pipe dream.
Undaunted, he spent 18 years and millions of dollars — with financing from the U.S. Department of Energy — to prove them wrong. By 1998, his company had developed a cocktail of water, sand, and chemicals that could break through shale.