The story begins in the autumn of 2007 when a strange young lady sporting a nose ring showed up at the home of author Seamus McGraw's mom in the tiny berg of Ellsworth Hill in the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania. Most of the folks in these parts barely eked out a living as dairy farmers. Little did they know that their farms were sitting atop an ocean of natural gas. Several years earlier a number of natural gas companies had begun sinking exploratory wells in the area and the results had been quite promising. Now area residents were being offered $25.00 an acre by this young woman in exchange for the right to drill on their property. Some were impetuous and signed on the dotted line right away but although she sure could have used the money Seamus McGraw's mom was a bit more skeptical and wanted to know more before she made a move. At that point she summoned her two grown children to come home and help her decide how to proceed. What happened over the next few years is the basis of Seamus McGraw's new book "The End of Country". McGraw grew up in this place and as such he had a very personal interest in the agonizing decisions that the farmers and landowners of the region were going to have to make. At stake was not only the economic well-being of these folks but also their very way of life. Most of these people understood that if they took the plunge there would be no turning back. For all intents and purposes by the end of 2008 it was pretty much a done deal. The lucky ones among them would become wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. Those who signed on in the earliest stages would receive a modest windfall while others would realize nothing at all. But make no mistake about it. There would be a steep price to pay for allowing these companies to drill for natural gas. The land that these folks cherished so much and the rural way of life they were so accustomed to would change and change dramatically. Not everyone agreed on how to proceed. Family members found themselves on different sides of the issue and long-term relationships between friends and neighbors would become strained. As long-time resident Ann Stang put it so succinctly it really would be "the end of country" for just about everyone in the area.
I must confess that prior to reading "The End of Country" I had never even heard of the Marcellus Formation or Marcellus shale. Likewise, I knew absolutely nothing about drilling for natural gas. In spite of the fact that I have seen first-hand the devastating results of mountaintop removal mining in the state of West Virginia I was blissfully unaware of the utter devastation that drilling for natural gas can cause. No more. Seamus McGraw lays it all out for us in the book in painstaking detail. Stands of old growth trees would be leveled in short order like so many toothpicks. Land would be cleared and roads built to make way for bulldozers and trucks and backhoes. The silence would be shattered all day, every day with the ear-piercing sound of those humongous drills doing their thing. Wells would be contaminated and the fish and game of the area threatened. For residents like Ken Ely, Victoria and Jim Switzer, Rosemarie Greenwood and Cleo Teel the changes afoot would prove to be extremely disturbing. Things were quickly spiraling out of control. Furthermore, by mid-2008 the pace of the drilling would accelerate exponentially after Terry Englander, a professor at Penn State University announced that according to his calculations the Marcellus might contain upwards of 500 trillion feet of natural gas. Now the rush to acquire land rights was on in earnest. Several more companies began sending representatives into the area and the offers to landowners skyrocketed. Now it was not uncommon for residents to be offered up to $2500 per acre for drilling rights. At the end of the day Seamus McGraw realized that his mother's instincts had been right all along. She affixed her signature on a contract that would pay her somewhere in the vicinity of $2500 per acre. She would never have to worry about money again! Still she wondered if she was doing the right thing. Everyone's worst fears were realized on New Year's Day 2009 when an explosion rocked a well at the home of Norma Fiorentino. It seems that methane gas had been seeping into her well. Soon other nasty environmental problems would begin to rear their ugly head. These events would spark an impassioned battle between the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and Cabot Oil and Gas. Seamus McGraw provides us with a blow-by-blow description.
I learned an awful lot in "The End of Country" and I like that. Author Seamus McGraw is a fine writer and a gifted storyteller. McGraw succeeds in transmitting to his readers the emotional highs and lows that the residents of this area were experiencing during these terribly turbulent times. I came away feeling happy for the folks who made the right choices along the way and found myself deeply saddened for those who had miscalculated and wound up with little or nothing at all. I wonder how I would react if I found myself in a similar situation. Whenever the public is told about a major new find of oil or natural gas we generally stand up and cheer. "Drill, baby, drill" is an expression we frequently hear from conservative politicians and those in the conservative news media. But rarely do most of us stop to think of the impact such discoveries will have on the people in the immediate area. I believe that "The End of Country" just might alter the way you think about these issues. Tom Brokaw seems to have summed it up best when he observed : " 'The End of Country' is an elegantly written and unsettling account of what can happen when big energy companies come calling in rural America. This cautionary tale should be required reading for all those tempted by the calling cards of easy money and precarious peace of mind. The result too often is bitter feuds, broken dreams, a shattered landscape." I completely concur. Highly recommended.