Fracking in Rural Pennsylvania

This winter, I travelled north, past Harrisburg and State College, up Route 13, to Lycoming County, Pennsylvania. It holds Williamsport, one of the few metropolitan areas nestled in the rural valleys of the northeastern Pennsylvania Allegheny Mountains. Once the “lumber capital of the world,” today Lycoming has fallen victim to the fracking epidemic because it positioned over a very large, very significant natural gas deposit, the Marcellus Shale.

Although not from Lycoming County, I have fond memories of spending my summers at my grandfather’s hunting cabin. But every year, I’ve seen continuous fleets of massive tanker trucks travelling up and down the interstates, vast cleared acres of forest, and eerie flares on the mountaintops in the distance. The accompaniment is deafening drilling that reverberates for miles through the valleys. Only recently did I come to find that all this destruction and din is due to fracking. The fracking itself is not easily visible to the public or the untrained eye, but it is unmistakably there. With my new understanding of the processes that take place, I found myself wanting to travel back to Lycoming County to see fracking firsthand and to understand how such a disruptive process can blend in and go unnoticed.

I chose Lycoming in part because of my familiarity with it, but also because of New York University’s Dr. Colin Jerolmack and his book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. He describes his intensive research on fracking and land rights in the county, but he doesn’t give any specifics in his book about certain sites or exact locations. So I wanted to discover just how embedded fracking is.

As of 2023, there are over 200,000 drilled and proposed fracking wells in Pennsylvania, 384 of which are in Lycoming County. Fractracker Alliance, a non-profit that shares maps, data, and analysis of the oil and gas industry, offers locations of wells across the country. Using this program, I was able to locate and pinpoint four main sites in Lycoming within a ten-mile radius, but accessible (more or less) to the public. I chose sites that were the most visible where I could get as close as possible without trespassing but ranged in geography and proximity to residential areas. Several of the other points on the map indicated wells that were proposed or present on private land owned by local residents and not visible.

Click image to enlarge.

The sites, which each held between three and ten wells, varied in landscape and status. At the first site, the wells were situated in a field between the Loyalsock Creek on the west and Route 87 on the east, from which the site was visible, but surrounded by fencing and security gates. The wells were directly across from a row of houses and had a sign in front indicating their operation was run by Inflection Energy LLC which retrieves its water from the nearby creek. The second site was right up the road and was nearly identical but appeared to be older and not as operational.

I went up the road and across the creek, where I came to a winding side street that looped around a residential area and came out to the top of a hill where I could see wells between the trees on a gravel clearing across a small valley. I approached a dirt road that scaled up the hill and over the valley, with an open gate, but similar warnings of “NO TRESSPASSING – AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.” From there, I snaked further down the road, back across the creek and up around and eventually on top of a mountain. About halfway up the incline, the road turned gravel and the forest got thicker. There were a few small houses and cabins nestled between the trees, but not much evidence of human presence besides that. It began to snow more heavily the farther up I went until I reached the State Game Lands of the Loyalsock State Forest.

Finally, I saw signs for a site up ahead and just as the path became too narrow and muddy for a regular car, there was a small clearing with another gravel trail and a single iron bar gate. It led to a large clearing with two big wells, electric equipment, and a shale pile leftover from clearing the land. Saying it was creepy would be an understatement. Everything was silent except for the electric hum of the generators and the gas tanks releasing pressure. There was a sense of uneasiness and discomfort with these mechanical man-made structures operating completely isolated in the wilderness.

The strangest part of my discoveries was not the sites themselves, but the fact that not a single person was present at any of them. There were no workers, no guards, no security, and barely any physical barriers in place to prevent potential trespassing, especially the more isolated the sites were. Signs were visible indicating the need for personal safety gear and authorized personnel only, but no real prevention methods to keep out the public.

Lycoming County is home to over 113,000 people and is considered partially rural because of the people per square mile ratio. Surrounding Williamsport are 1,043 farms as of 2017, totaling 186,130 acres. A majority of the farms are valued at less than $2,500 and are between 50 to 170 acres, used for crops, livestock, and poultry. 98% of them are family farms and are owned by the people who live on them and oversee them. Though none of the sites I visited were on farms or private land, many are, as Jerolmack explains in his book, which is why so few are visible to the public. Pennsylvania state laws allow drilling up to 500 feet away from a home and 1.5 million people live within a half mile of an active well across the commonwealth.

Land ownership is almost sacred in this part of the state, but landowners are approached by fracking companies who, with the incentive of payments and royalties, lease their properties to drill for years,. Because of the low value of so many family farms, these landowners are enticed by the money and see fracking as a good thing – until it’s too late and their properties and health are at stake.

As I saw firsthand, there are little to no safety measures in place to keep individuals out of company-owned, publicly accessible, drilling sites, so I can imagine how little is done to protect people living on the land where fracking is occurring. What I learned firsthand in my exploration of Lycoming County where I spent my golden summers is that energy companies prey on and exploit rural landowners because of their need for supplemental income and their overall powerlessness in the face of a major corporation.

RCC National Environment Leadership Fellow – Caroline Bower – Drexel University

RCC Fellow Caroline Bower is a senior at Drexel University studying Environmental Studies and Sustainability with a concentration in Environmental Policy, as well as a minor in Philosophy. She is currently an undergraduate research assistant helping to research and compile data on storm surge barriers and their ecological impact. She previously interned with EA Engineering where she worked closely with environmental regulation and monitoring.