Tom Wilber discusses "Under the Surface" at a book talk at NYC's Revolution Books on May 22. Credit: Emily Masters
Fracking and 'The Grassroots': An Interview With Tom Wilber

For Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin journalist Tom Wilber, fracking started as just another story. But as controversy surrounding the process -- which includes using a toxic mix of chemicals to extract shale gas from underground -- heated up, he found more than enough material for a book. The debate in recent years has swirled around Pennsylvania’s fracking industry, where environmental complications and grassroots activism have changed the public’s initially positive perception of the safety of fracking. Closer to home, today both anti-fracking activists and industry enthusiasts in New York await Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision on whether to lift the state’s ban on fracking.

Connecting the debate across state lines is the Marcellus Shale, the gas-containing rock formation at the center of Wilber’s book, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale. It was one of five works nominated for the New York Public Library's Annual Helen Bernstein Book Award For Excellence In Journalism. Wilber spoke at Revolution Books at 4pm on May 22. The Indy sat down with Wilber shortly before his book talk.


Emily Masters: The book has been described as an account of the many viewpoints in the fracking debate. Whose opinions did you include and why? 

Tom Wilber: This resource’s footprint is so big and directly affects so many people, so there are many different voices and stakeholders. There are politicians, regulators and lawyers. But where it all started was just residents. The book takes their view from the beginning, about what their expectations were and what they learned as they went along.

EM: Why not focus on the neighbors or the activists? 

TW: The book is about how the landowners became a central part of the activists, before the activist movement even started. When things started in 2008, there was no anti-fracking movement yet. There was no real mainstream awareness of this. The book really talks about the dawning of this movement. This book is a case study of how the story unfolds in Pennsylvania. There was a lot of expectation in 2008, which was before frack was a bad word, before Josh Fox came out, when everybody was just looking and seeing what this natural gas was. Cabot Oil and Gas was drilling in Pennsylvania. People had leased their land for low sums and were hoping for royalties. Then one thing led to the next; Norma Fiorentino’s water well blew up. Cabot had to explain this to people, so a lot of the book was how they were doing damage control.

EM: What role did activists play?

TW: There are a lot of accidental activists, people who are not like Josh Fox right away, the types of people who never saw their name in the paper outside of birth and marriage announcements. They are not people starting out in the limelight, but they ended up making a huge influence on the story as activists. They team up with Josh Fox later on, when eventually his movie came out in 2010.  They all pulled together on one side.

EM: What role do you play as an individual as you report on this heated debate?

TW: I am not making a judgement on the risks or rewards of fracking. I understand there are risks and rewards and they have to be weighed. I am objective on that, but I have a very strong opinion on one aspect of it: transparency. Journalists look at concentrations of wealth and power with skepticism, because they are watchdogs. It is very clear to me that the industry has a lot of room for transparency because they started out on this whole thing saying, ‘Look, there is no problem with fracking. It is all safe.’ So they have set themselves up for this close scrutiny. They are exempt from some very important federal regulations and that allows them essentially not reveal what they are doing, what they are putting in the ground. As a journalist, I do aggressive reporting. That puts me on the same side as the fence as activists a lot of the time, but then I have to explain to activists, I am sympathetic to your stories, the stories of landowners and people who are suffering the consequences. And I am much more sympathetic to them than I am to concentrations of wealth and power. But that doesn’t mean I am an anti-fracker.

EM: You have made the decision to keep your opinion out of your public face on the issue. But surely you have a personal opinion?

TW: On fracking? I go back and forth. There are a lot of people who have spelled out their opinion and who I respect a lot. I am not ready to join the anti-fracking activists because it is not my place, if I am to remain credible as a journalist, to be protesting. But I will say, people need see what fracking for what it really is, not for what it is cracked up to be, to make the right decisions collectively.

EM: You’ve also been critical of Josh Fox’s work?

TW: Criticism is good. You critique people’s work; you go with it, you don’t go with it. I respect Josh Fox’s work. Be clear on that. I am different from Josh Fox. I am also clear on that. I don’t agree with his presentation but Josh Fox has changed the discussion. He brought this into the mainstream. So I call him a really important counterbalance to this industry. 

EM: What about the New York City audience?

TW: I can tell you that the New York City audience was a lot more plugged in when they had the feeling that their watershed was involved and I think there is a general sense that that has gone away now that the main watershed it off the table. There are still, among activists, legitimate concerns that, ‘Are these buffer zones enough and can things change?’ But for most of the people down in New York City, fracking is not a hot issue anymore because the government and Cuomo haven’t really approved it yet. There is a sense that this is going to go away and even if it doesn’t, it won’t be allowed in the watershed. But this is just a perception. Things change. I don’t think the story in New York City is as big a deal politically or in the media. The media is still following it, but not blow by blow, like they were two, three years ago.

EM: How do you feel that affects the debate?

TW: The New York City influence in the overall debate has been huge, because we are not fracking in New York.

EM: Cuomo has been stalling a decision on whether to lift New York State’s ban on fracking for many months now. What has the energy industry has done to influence that decision, and how hard are they trying to get their way?

TW: There are a couple things. The demand for natural gas is dropping off a little bit and it is much smaller than the supply of natural gas, since the supply has gone up and consequently the price has gone down. When the price goes down, it is simply not as valuable over the short term and there is not as much incentive for the industry to push, push, push. Right now they are developing in Pennsylvania. They want to get into New York but not as badly as they did in 2008, when the price of gas was two or three times what it is now. But they don’t want to see the New York door close. So there is home rule, where the state decides where they can get the wells drilled. The industry supports this since they don’t have to work around municipal preferences, zoning and land use. The municipalities have challenged that and believe they have the right to decide on drilling. The industry has taken them to court on this, since it would be a disincentive if suddenly Ithaca or Dryden could opt out. It starts breaking up their shale play. The industry has been successful in lobbying against legislation for a ban, but they have been unsuccessful with home rule. The courts and courts of appeals have sided with the municipalities. So right now New York is getting to be a less desirable place to develop because the municipalities have a lot more influence.

EM: How does the New York State anti-fracking movement fit into this? What do you think about its tactics in this debate? 

TW: I like this story a lot. I am really interested in the grassroots idea, as a lot of journalists are. This is ground-up, the people. It is not the big bureaucrats making the decision. These are just people getting together. This grassroots thing is really at a town hall level. And it is ironic that, as the smoke is clearing in New York State, it is the town hall folks winning the battle. Here we have President Obama, who has been go, go, go with gas; he has been all for it. The state has been for it. It is the townsfolks who have put the brakes on it.