As rumor has it, Seamus McGraw’s rough draft of The End of Country ignited a bidding war among New York’s leading publishing houses. It doesn’t take more than the first few pages and an ounce of business acumen to see why. McGraw brings us to the front lines of the U.S. energy revolution to deliver an honest and humbling account that could hardly possess greater relevance. His narrative of a natural gas discovery in a small town anticipates coming struggles to assess the global risks and benefits of cleaner energy practices.
McGraw’s family farm, tucked away in a remote corner of eastern Pennsylvania, lies above the Marcellus Shale, one of the richest subterranean stores of natural gas ever discovered. A trillion dollars’ worth of the stuff lies beneath the rocky surface but for years geologists considered it unrecoverable. In 2007, that changed.
Over the months and years that followed, as deepening energy prices flooded the nation, so flooded eager energy prospectors into those rural hamlets. McGraw’s struggling family, along with nearly every other family in the region, would soon face a decision—what to do when the prospectors inevitably knocked on their door and said, “Good afternoon! Nice piece of land you’ve got here!”
Merging personal narrative with investigative journalism and ethnography, McGraw dispenses with the conventions of typical nonfiction prose. Instead, he employs another tried and true formula. McGraw makes us laugh; he makes us reflect; and he makes us wait. In that order. The result is an engaging social geography of both academic and political consequence that just happens to be a page-turner. In fact, the first thing to strike the reader is not the nuance of the themes but rather the imagery itself. McGraw doesn’t simply tell us a story about a community pitted against the avarice of energy firms; he shows us, with haunting lucidity.
As foreshadow, we’re told the little-known story about the ghost town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Centralia sits atop a generous deposit of anthracite coal, another fuel once marketed as cleaner-burning. In 1962 Centralia’s anthracite mine caught on fire and, despite numerous attempts to extinguish the underground inferno, it still burns today. “You can visit if you like. No one will stop you,” remarks McGraw. “There are still streets and sidewalks you can walk along. There are still concrete stoops where houses used to be. And wherever you look, you can see stray wisps of smoke, stinking of sulfur, rising from beneath the ground. Even in the dead of winter, if you reach down and touch the ground, it’s hot. It’s like hell is buried one shovelful down.”
As McGraw proceeds, he draws upon a number of timely themes—clean energy politics, lay scientific expertise, corporate hegemony, and NIMBY activism to name a few. Yet, he isn’t on a mission to paint stark truths. Instead he illustrates in shades. With an even temper, he shows how the natural gas elixir sniffed out in the hills rolling under Pennsylvania and up to New York State represents a blessing and a curse to local communities. More importantly, he shows how multiple environmental and societal understandings interact and sometimes explode to recreate the lived experiences of residents during this moment of dramatic change.
Less than a decade ago the intoxicating fumes wafting up from the Pennsylvania countryside were little more than a curiosity, recalls McGraw. Wisps of gas would occasionally bubble up through riverbeds to the delight of children whose elders would light them to create brief yet magical plumes of yellow fire. The gas annoyed farmers as they dug their water wells. A spark from a shovel or pick could ignite the settled vapors without warning.
Following the 1970s oil embargo, government geologists foraged the region for usable gas deposits. Local residents hummed with a mixture of anticipation and mistrust. One neighbor told McGraw’s mother, “Let ‘em look around, but whatever you do, don’t sign anything.” Alas, there was nothing to sign.
After extracting core samples from the land, the government surveyors left town shaking their heads. They knew an immense sea of gas lay under the surface but it remained locked up in a layer of stratum called the Marcellus shale. No matter how valuable it might be, there was simply no way to set the tightly bound gasses free. A string of failed attempts proved them right, for a time.
Thirty years later, however, Halliburton and other firms economized a process of hydraulic fracturing wherein operators injected chemical slurries into the ground at pressures high enough to fracture subterranean rock formations and release the entombed gas. “Fracking,” as the process was named, could unlock the stores of gas imprisoned within the Marcellus, and energy firms wasted little time coordinating the release.
Gas companies sent so-called landmen into communities perched above the shale in order to secure land and drilling rights from local residents. It’s difficult to know how well those landmen recognized the risks drilling would bring—risks such as groundwater contamination, radiation exposure, chemical spills, greenhouse gas emissions, and well explosions. It’s equally unclear if they fully comprehended the rich dollar value of gas resources in those hills, which their employers would eventually measure in the billions. But the landmen had one thing going for them. Whatever they did or didn’t know, the locals knew even less.
That too would change.
Some locals saw the transformations set to occur around them as inevitable. Even if they denied drillers right-of-way to their own hundred acres, they’d still be forced to endure the chaos on surrounding property. The grind of drilling rigs operating through the night and the risks of aquifer contamination would extend well beyond the surveyor’s stakes popping up along once invisible property boundaries. And there was another inevitability, one that residents could somehow sense before it became as visible as their property lines. That new influx of money stood to change not only their own lives, but also the very constitution of community in those unadorned hills.
High-priced land leases and gas royalties would crown some residents millionaires and leave others behind. Residents who once had no problem squeezing every last drop of local gossip from their neighbors suddenly found themselves measuring their words and calculating their questions. The binds of hard work and sacrifice that had for so long offered generations of farmers and ranchers a sense of common purpose began to loosen.
Ultimately, McGraw’s exposé reveals far more than a single moment of time passing through a small community in rural Pennsylvania. It reflects a cash-strapped nation looking for its next energy fix. It unveils a mainstream environmental movement pushing to procure clean energy at any cost. It casts a light back on us, offering a glimpse into what we value and where we’re going. Projected from this rural American community, The End of Country broadly renders the science, ethics, and risks of the global energy grab in an inspiring story we’d do well to also read as a cautionary tale.
Ozzie Zehner is the author of the forthcoming book, Green Illusions, which pioneers a critique of alternative energy from an environmental perspective. He is a visiting scholar at the University of California Berkeley and the Editor of Critical Environmentalism (CriticalEnvironmentalism.org).