Resist Unconventional Gas Drilling in the Finger Lakes, Marcellus Shale

By Disobey Wan Kenobi

As fossil fuel resources reach their peaks, energy companies move toward the most marginal, hard-to-get-to reserves, using the most intensive, destructive, toxic extraction techniques. From the tar sands of Alberta to mountain-top removal in the coal fields of Appalachia, the scope of violation to land and communities boggles the mind. Now, we in the Northeast are staring down the barrel of "unconventional" natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Similar operations are occurring throughout the Rockies, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere, but in this article, I'll focus on the Northeast.

The Marcellus Shale stretches from Upstate New York through Pennsylvania, West Virginia and eastern Ohio. It has been described as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas -- the third largest natural gas field on the planet. Big players such as Exxon/Mobil, Halliburton, Talisman, Chesapeake, Schlumberger and others are busily drilling in Pennsylvania and are working their way through toothless regulatory agencies in New York, where they are expected to begin drilling this summer. They also plan to construct between 50,000 and 100,000 five-acre wells -- a massive industrialization of rural landscapes and lives.

How it Works, in a Nutshell

"Conventional" gas drilling involves variations on the theme of drilling into a pocket of gas and sucking it up. The Marcellus Shale, however, is a mass of widely dispersed little bubbles of gas. As such, it could not be obtained until Halliburton created the technology to literally shatter the shale to break up the bubbles. This technology, "High Volume Horizontal Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing" (usually referred to as variations of "hydro-fracking" or just "fracking"), involves two- to nine-million gallons of water per "frack." Blended with this are about 10,000 gallons of toxic chemicals, which are sand-blasted deep beneath the ground at very high pressures for each "frack." Fracking may occur up to 12 times over the life of a well (up to 40 years). That water must be trucked there (10,000-gallon tanker trucks, plus nine-million gallons water/frack, plus 12 fracks, plus 100,000 wells equals lots of trucks), and it must be trucked away to an as-of-yet unknown place when it has become toxic waste.

The dangers involved include but are not limited to: ground and surface water contamination with chemicals and methane (in Colorado, some folks can ignite their tap water), chemical spills, massive removal and toxification of fresh water from ecosystems, air pollution and ground-level ozone exposure (from constantly running diesel equipment) and, of course, the perpetual question of what to do with billions of gallons of toxic waste. The chemicals involved are known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors. Serious health effects have been reported by residents in drilled areas. The breakdown of communities and local economies is not far behind all this as neighbors blame each other and the land becomes unfit for farming, tourism, hunting, etc.


Shaleshock Action Alliance is a decentralized, grassroots, consensus-based environmental justice organization. As small town people in rural areas, we face this looming threat knowing that we can't afford to isolate ourselves. The severity of the devastation compels us to implement a diversity of tactics. Shaleshock puts on film screenings, hosts speakers, prints literature, lobbies elected officials, organizes grassroots water testing, works the regulatory channels, works with other groups, designs and hosts trainings and classes, and scrambles for legal footing to buy time. And new projects keep sprouting.

As a tactic, we also use what are called listening projects, in which locals are asked about their connections to the area, their values, and what experiences, thoughts and opinions they have with regards to gas drilling issues. Listening projects are not a new idea; they are currently used in organizing against mountain-top removal in Appalachia and were used extensively by groups critical of nuclear weapons and U.S. foreign policy during the 1980s.

In Upstate New York, we go door to door in the areas that are to be drilled first (those closest to pipelines) and listen to what folks have to say. We have literature if people want it, but we try not to proselytize. Through this process, we become clearer communicators and gain a ground-level understanding of the complexity of this issue in the microcosm of small-town life.

Listening projects reveal unlikely alliances, challenge stereotypes, provide information for other organizing, show us our blind spots, identify allies and inform our actions with a community-based perspective. Listening projects require listening skills, emotional IQ and the humility to hear people out. If we, as anarchists, wish to connect with communities, we'll need more activities like this informing our work.

We have also made use of innovative facilitation methods during community discussions such as "world cafes" -- a conversational process meant to connect people, groups and networks -- to make things more participatory and self-organizational, and to take conversations deeper.

For more information, please visit and follow the links. We'd also like to give props to Rising Tide North America.

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