Boom: Fossil Fuel Collisions

Fracking | Accident 

The driver of the frackwater truck swerved because there was a little girl walking along the highway. She was walking eastward early that morning, not precisely on the shoulder, swerving in and out of the edge line the way she does with thick, dulled crayons. She might have been chasing a ball or a cat. From my desk now I can only imagine the terror of the encounter with the truck—the driver, eyes bloodshot, mega coffee thermos in hand, squinting at her approaching silhouette and recognizing her as a daughter, friend, sister, little girl. And her, too, looking up at the oncoming vehicle and seeing the massive grill of the machine, and above that a pale white face in the window. A father, an uncle, a scared man, she thought, before he jerked the wheel and swerved into the guard rail. The enormous truck bumped and skittered its way violently down the hillside, past a house where two other little girls sometimes played in the yard. The truck crashed in a ditch just south of the house, just within eyesight of the man who owned the house, Tyler Rivers, who was on the lookout for this sort of thing.  

      When I think of fracking, I think of acceleration. I think of Tyler throwing open the door to his house and running towards the truck. I think of the rate at which the driver went from speeding and scared to lifeless and still, which is, despite the haste of Tyler’s running, precisely how he found the driver in the cockpit of the vehicle. He was a young man, maybe just out of high school, offered, like the others, a salary of $80,000 to drive this truck – with haste – to fracking sites across the highways that roll through West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. 

       About five thousand feet beneath Tyler and the body, the Marcellus Shale Rock formation sprawled its old, quiet seams through the earth’s stratum. From the surface, you wouldn’t know this. Tyler knew not only that the hard rock was there, but that it contained innumerable pores, some just as wide as grains of sand, all filled with lucrative natural gas. The gas, if you were to snake your way down into the deep layers of the earth, would appear an innocuous vapor, colorless and clear in its small pockets. When ignited, though, the vapor burns hot and bright.   

Around the time of the crash, Tyler’s neighbors were asking questions about the increasing fracking activity in their backyards. What chemicals do companies use to perform the fracking? Who gave you the right to frack in my backyard? Could any of this digging underground contaminate groundwater? Is this procedure safe for the workers who have to transport this stuff 

As for chemicals, most companies use some kind of agent that makes the water slick, as well as a mixture that will kill bacteria that live deep underground before they come up to the surface. According to Inside Climate News reporter Neela Banerjee, under a policy referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole,” companies do not need to disclose which chemicals they choose for these functions, or at what concentrations. So Tyler can stand beside the highway and watch truck after truck rumbling down the road with unidentifiable (at least to Tyler) mixtures of “frackwater” or “wastewater.” Roger Drouin at Yale Environment 360 reports that waste fracking water from deep in the earth contains arsenic, chlorine, and radium, each of which might leach through drinking water into the bodies of community members. Tyler and his neighbors have to rely on smell and taste alone to sense if their water has been contaminated. It can be hard to know how to test their drinking water, let alone what to test for. All of that is to say that on the day that the fracking truck crashed in Tyler’s yard, he had no way of knowing the contents of its quiet belly.   

As for the safety of fracking procedure, the driver’s crash into Tyler’s yard is telling. Beyond the rigs, which are often operated by workers with varying degrees of expertise and training, the road accounts for a large portion of fracking-related injuries and deaths. Ian Urbina at the New York Times writes that between 2003 and 2008, one-third of deaths in the oil fields were caused by driving accidents. Sometimes the driver survives an accident, sometimes they do not. Sometimes a crash involves the leakage of unidentifiable frackwater being transported in those trucks, sometimes the cargo remains contained; unscathed. As for the driver in Tyler’s yard, he swerved because a child suddenly appeared in the road, but he was also likely sleep-deprived, likely going fast enough that seeing the child would have been difficult. He was possibly, in order to meet the demands of his long shifts, on some kind of stimulant.  

In a lecture I attended on fracking in the Bakken Fields, geographer Bruce Braun told the audience, “if you want to learn about fracking, look in the gas stations around fracking country. You will find so many caffeinated drinks. That says something about the pace of life in this industry.” Braun tracks accidents in the fracking fields, and suggests that the rate at which natural gas is coming out of the ground relates to the accidents and the pace at which fracking workers have to live – the pace at which the industry operates to extract the gas from the ground and sell it as quickly as possible. I think often about the collision of the truck into Tyler’s life, because hearing the story made it feel like the truck had collided with my own life, too. For Tyler, and soon, in turn, for me, the story would serve as a confrontation with the pace of our own lives – a pace driven by vapor burning bright.   

Tyler | Fracking 

I had met Tyler years before on a visit to coal country. When he learned I was in West Virginia for the month, he invited me to visit his town and learn more about the fracking boom that had transformed his community over the last few years. I couldn’t turn down the invite. I had heard the industry talking point that fracking burns more “cleanly” (emitting less pollutants) than coal, but a visit with Tyler could help me start to understand the full impacts of fracking, and would provide context to the decline in coal that I had been tracking elsewhere in West Virginia. The market had spoken: coal was dead because natural gas was cheaper. West Virginia’s industrial muscles had shifted northwards with the gas, and so, for just a day, I would too. 

I wish I could tell you more about Tyler, but I can’t divulge too many details. I’ll say that he’s an environmental and public health advocate in his spare time, but he asked me to keep all other facts about him, including his name and his town, anonymous, because any overt anti-fracking sentiment would get him fired at work. As it turns out, the sentiment behind Governor Jim Justice’s new motto about welcoming fracking wholeheartedly to the state, “No more saying no” had permeated into an informal code at Tyler’s workplace, too. Saying anything against fracking was saying no to West Virginia’s industrial future. And so many people in the state, all the way down to Tyler’s employer, held fast to the idea that West Virginia needed, despite the risks of fracking, despite the frightening acceleration of industry, despite all of the unknowns, to say yes. 

      The secrecy with which I needed to proceed frightened me, because it showed just how powerful the industry presence was in the state when I met with Tyler. He could be fired for talking to me, a writer visiting from the desert with an environmental slant. The kind of person who, despite Justice’s new motto, might just say no.  

We walked through Tyler’s living room and into his corner office, and he offered me a seat behind his chair so that I could see his computer screen. His toddler daughter, who had announced herself as Disney’s Moana when I walked in the door, excitedly wiggled her way up to sit in my lap and watch her dad at work. Together, we watched the mid-thirties man, big-framed silhouette, shoulders sloped, leaning close to the screen as he clacked away at his keyboard, clicking into files, following chains of commands that seemed by the assuredness of his mouse like well-worn pathways. He was clearly caffeinated, turning around to us with bright and wide blue eyes as he talked about his vigilante role tracking the industrial boom in his free time. 

       “The fracking came in heavy here,” said Tyler, as he opened up a map that he had created on Google Maps to geo-locate the impacts of the fracking activity. “Not as heavy as in the Bakken fields of North Dakota, but heavy enough.” On the map he had plotted a series of small purple dots, each representing a drill pad, the precise locations at which a probing drill initially pierced the ground. From each of these dots, purple spindly fibers stretched outwards like the legs of a water strider. The long purple lines all faced the same direction, and Tyler explained that they represented the horizontal drilling that happened at each drilling pad. The lines followed the same angles because they followed the natural striations in the shale rock, and so the deep horizontal drilling was occurring with the grain of the rock, so to speak. If I squinted, the series of lines and nodes looked like cells dividing fast: prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase.  

       He then clicked and an additional digital layer appeared atop the purple dots and lines: a red layer of dots that represented chemical spills and civilian complaints. The map was speckled with these dots. 

“Some of the companies do a much better job than others,” he said in a gesture towards fairness to the industry, “in terms of violations.” 

Tyler then started to recall out loud the civilian complaints at many of these locations, people calling him wondering why their backyard had turned into a parking lot for a new fracking well, people wondering why a stinking pile of chemicals that looked like snow showed up on the hillside, why approaching the apparent snow pile gave them headaches. Why it never melted. Others wondered why their drinking water started to taste like licorice, why they had stomach pain, why they felt nauseated. 

His daughter, still seated in my lap, looked along with me, clearly excited to be part of dad’s office time. How much of this discussion – of trucks crashing, of chemicals spilling, of frantic neighbors calling Tyler – would drip its way into her bright little mind, into the world that she was making for herself? 

      The rest of my day with Tyler now feels like a reel of flashing images when I try to recall it. First slide: Tyler offers to take me to see some of those red dots from the map. I am in Tyler’s white pickup truck driving up a hill upon which metal tubes and pipes and spigots and knobs wrap themselves around a compressor station where the gas is stored and liquefied before it gets transported to power stations. Men behind the wire fencing of the station reluctantly return Tyler’s wave as we drive by. No one came up to these frack sites without permission, and we didn’t have permission.  

Next slide: we careen down a hill and through brilliant green deciduous forests as Tyler talks about the “fugitive” methane that leaks from abandoned well pads all over the landscape. To think that there were probably hundreds of leaking wells out there in the fields, each contributing to climate change without anyone necessarily accounting for them, alarmed me. Part of the reason why fracking has exploded is because it supposedly emits less CO2 than other fossil fuel sources when burned. But the escaped methane, called “fugitive emissions,” changes that calculation. “You wouldn’t believe how many leaking wells there are” says Tyler.   

The images continue to flash. I look out the window to see a snapshot of workers in hard hats hauling and connecting segments of a wide green pipe spilling down a hillside and across a field. How long until the pipe starts transporting gas? I look over at Tyler and he is unwrapping a gobstopper. He says a candy-garbled “out here it’s like the wild west” and explains that companies have moved with such haste, communicated so poorly about their plans to develop their operations, that several pipes have run into each other, causing spills into the West Virginian fields and soil that Tyler would soon detect and label on his vigilante map. He adds: “Hardly any of the existing regulations get enforced out here.”  

      Throughout the day I listened most closely as Tyler discussed the neighbors and fellow West Virginians who called him to report new industry transgressions, each soon becoming their own red dot in a file on Tyler’s computer. At first, he said, he was shocked that they reported to him. He was especially shocked by a case in which a fracking company created a parking lot in a man’s backyard overnight. The bleeping of large vehicles backing up, along with their incessant rumbling in and out of the parking lot, filled the man’s house at all hours of the night. And large, bright stadium lights flooded his windows so that night never really came. One light pointed directly into the window of his son, who had a traumatic brain injury from which he was trying to recover. That case really got to Tyler. He tried writing a letter to the New York Times about it, but no one ever responded. Eventually the company moved on from the man’s house, the parking lot emptied as if it had never been there.   

He said that, as he attempts to advocate for his neighbors, he has become demoralized. “I call it EMT syndrome,” he sighed. “Like when you’ve seen enough blood and gore it doesn’t bother you anymore.” 

Still, like an EMT, he remains diligent, invested in a healing procedure, sitting at the computer late at night, trying to add more layers on to the map, trying to document the rapidity of industry against the relative slowness of human lives. He told me that he dreams of showing this map to some of West Virginia’s decision-makers, and then taking those decision-makers around to all of the red dots, to the homes and backyards, “so that they can see all of this for themselves.” 

Coal | Fracking   

When I was conducting research in a former mining town, I spent an afternoon with a retired miner, Seth, in an old college library that was officially closing down because the college, nearly bankrupt, was moving to another town. Two librarians bustled around us packing books up into boxes and taping price tags onto pieces of furniture to sell. The tags marked desks and bookshelves all over the library. Seth brought me over to a shelf of books that hadn’t been boxed up yet, pulled an old blue covered one from the shelf, and handed it over to me. “Look at the spine,” he said, “you see where that was published?” I ran my finger down the frayed papery spine, noted a title related to mining engineering, and, imprinted in gold, was a label that read the name of the small town in italics.  

“Right here in this town,” he explained proudly, recalling the town circa 1965, when coal was booming. “Everything was happening here then. We trained the best mining engineers, we had hundreds of students in town, we published our own books. Coal was streaming out of the mountains all around us like you wouldn’t believe, filling every train car out on the tracks.” 

We were standing next to a set of large windows overlooking the town and he walked over to stand close to them, gesturing that I follow him. The blue-white light illuminated his leathery skin and the deep lines around his eyes. He pointed out of the glass to the sites of a former bowling alley, comic book store, diner, and convenience store. I looked over at him and he was pointing out to the town, touching his finger to the windowpane. I realized as he spoke that he was creating for me a map of his memory, of a world that that he once lived in, but that had slowly decelerated—a world that, like all worlds, was ultimately brief.  

Over the course of fossil fuel history, this much is true: for every boom there is a bust. But, if I am to really try to understand the lives of people like Seth who lived in industrial denouement, I need to wrap my head around boom-times, too—around lives in the fleeting peak of immense capital, relevance, excitement, and danger; slippery and ephemeral wealth. In West Virginia, for miners like Seth, the boom-times manifested in a bowling alley and a convenience store. But most of the wealth from booms left the state, evaded long-term investment into the lives of the people who extracted it. Instead, the wealth moved into the pockets of absentee land owners and absentee investors, like the current secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, whose net worth in the billions derives in part from Appalachian coal.   

In 2003, when Kentuckian Erik Reece realized that the mountain he loved was slated for strip mining (A.K.A. mountaintop removal) by Leslie Resources (in which, incidentally, Wilbur Ross was a major investor), he used the term “acceleration” to describe what he was seeing on the landscape over the course of a year as Leslie Resources’ machines and laborers proceeded to wrench coal out of the mountain’s strata. Reece notes that his mountain was named as if presciently: “Lost Mountain.” He also suggests that we should think about such fast mining as the warping of deep geological time. Seams of coal that had taken millions of years to form took only a year to uncover, strip away, and send around the world. In a year, ecosystems brimming with immense biodiversity were bulldozed. Reece’s mountain was decimated. 

As new mining technology and deregulation swept through his landscape, he contextualized the moment in the broader scheme of Appalachian history: “the story of the last hundred years” he writes, “is the story of acceleration.” He quotes historian Henry Adams, who wrote an essay in 1905 titled “The Law of Acceleration.” Reece paraphrases Adams as he muses about the nearly exponential growth in coal extraction and consumption between 1800 and 1900, writing, “there was, Adams admitted, a chaotic upsurge, a ‘vertiginous violence’ associated with such acceleration [accommodated by the use of fossil fuels], but he believed the modern mind could harness that force and use it for good.” In Adams’ own predictive words for what fossil fuels would do for people in the future: “every American who lived into the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind.” 

To this, his mountain all but gone, coal seams extracted and exported from the state, Reece responds: “but alas, we don’t [know how to control unlimited power], and we don’t [think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind].” In other words: we are not quite capable of understanding the power that coal (and other fossil fuels) has brought us (the power of illumination, the power of combustion, the power of altering the climate). And, we are not quite capable of wrapping our minds around the complexities that these fuels bring to our lives (altering the climate, environmental contamination, the uneven spread of that contamination among mostly marginalized communities and people of color). 

It’s worth asking who the “we” might be in Reece’s assertions. Reece is directly affected by coal extraction. He lives in a region in which the memories and legacies of a fossil fuel boom are very recent. I am less confident that a broader “we,” perhaps “we” who are removed from the sources of our energy, are capable of wrapping our minds around the gravity of this particular industrial moment, in which not just coal, but natural gas is now illuminating our light bulbs. We are less likely to wrap our minds around the consequences of long-term impacts to drinking water, the consequences of a man staying up plotting industry transgressions in a database, the consequences of, not just one, but dozens of trucks veering precipitously off roads in otherwise quiet hills.  

I have less confidence in that broader “we” because that broader “we” includes me, and I have tried and truly struggled with making sense of my day with Tyler. I have not touched my notes from that day for months. Out of fear, I think now, fear of the frenzy of that day, the pain of knowing that people might be calling Tyler right now with the next spill in their yard, the next leakage of fracking chemicals into their backyard pond, the next headache, the next illness. I am afraid I can’t sufficiently push my mind into the relentless motion of extraction. Compared to the simplicity of the act of turning on a light switch, the complexities of impact are difficult to account for. In this industrial moment of connecting to the grid, in this acceleration, it is not only possible, but easy, for me to think of the frenzy of that day and then forget, put my notes away. I slip into the illusions of consumption, the illusions of comfort, illumination, the boom. When I remember, though, I feel like it is me setting my fingertips against the window overlooking my world, and that the world I see beyond the pane is one already gone.  

Traffic | Self 

I have recently started watching pigeons as they watch traffic. They are abundant around my current home in Tucson: pigeons lined up tidily along a lamp post. They perch above a local Thai restaurant, above a Safeway, above the bridge under which thousands of bats roost in the early spring, the bridge from which those bats flutter wildly into the pink streaks of a desert sunset, searching with their tiny clacks of echolocation for small bugs to eat. Occasionally I’ll see so many pigeons in a line that one of them will have to perch on the sloped bend in the streetlight. They slip on the slope and flutter up again, clamoring with scaled feet against the metal for a place to stand for a while. They are steadfastly committed to these posts, from which they can watch the city traffic whir.  

      They are astonishingly attentive. Most of their heads are turned, like the surveillance cameras they perch next to, in the direction of incoming traffic. Bird-brained surveillance, I once wrote in my journal. From their vantage, they can survey the pace of the human condition.   

       I’ve made a habit of watching them on my bike ride to school. I follow their beaked heads down to the traffic, to cars clunking over small gaps and cracks in the road. Sometimes, I am among these cars, too, speeding along to any number of places, buying a filing cabinet or prescription drug, combusting and exploding the gas in my engine for a pack of cookies from Trader Joe’s. From my bike, closer to the pavement, I can see that the white lines of the crosswalk have become caked with hasty rubber smears.   

      When I think of traffic, as the pigeons may or may not do, I think of weight. The evidence of a car’s weight is all over the pavement. Cracks and pores and fissures from the steady movement of vehicles. I find it hard to believe exactly how many vehicles can process through the intersection in the few minutes I wait there on my bike. Each car weighs, on average, approximately as much as a small rhinoceros. I pause for a moment, look around at my fellow bike commuters, also waiting for our green light, texting under bike helmets, laughing with friends, and think, how is this not more strange to us

How could this not be magic, what the birds and I watch – we are watching the collapse of time! Thousands of years of fuel reserves powering rhinoceros-sized containers across the road. We are watching the collapse of time and energy and labor required to get the fossil fuels to us, the entire series of events that occurs between extraction and the lightness of our foot on the pedal. Literary scholar Rob Nixon suggests that we collapse time by borrowing time, too, from the people who will come after us, children, grandchildren, people who will be hardest hit in the global south, current and future climate refugees and communities who will contend with irreparable contamination and ecosystem damage from fossil fuel extraction. There is more to any intersection than we might initially think.  

How should we confront fossil fuels in our daily lives? I think of writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, whose home and community in the Niger Delta suffered from the pollution from fossil fuel extraction under the Royal Dutch Shell Company. He was so courageous and disruptive in his advocacy against the extractive status quo that the Nigerian Government considered him a threat and executed him at the age of fifty-four. I think of Tim DeChristopher, a West Virginian who interrupted a land bidding process on oil-rich lands in Utah by pretending that he would pay for the land, becoming Bidder 70 in a bold bid to keep fossil fuels in the ground. When the Utah government realized that he wasn’t actually going to pay, they sent him to federal prison for almost two years. I think of other West Virginians and activists I have seen in photos who locked their necks with bike locks to mountaintop removal bulldozers and dared the companies to proceed. I think of U.S. youth climate delegations I have seen at the United Nations, who sing loudly “we will throw our bodies down/we will keep it in the ground” and return to the United States, to Standing Rock and Wyoming and Maryland to dig their heels in to their sung promises. 

As for me, I keep waiting at the same crosswalk. What would it mean to confront the moments I spend there as the red seconds flicker by on the light post? Maybe I should groan. The poet Brenda Hillman suggests that as participants in an energy system that has violent flaws, we should groan at the gas station when we are filling up our cars. To groan is to recognize the pain we’re causing in consuming this resource, the weight of this resource. I haven’t groaned yet… I am far too shy to try… yet. But every time I fill up my car, I think of the act of groaning, of what it would be like to knock my head back and moan at some frequency aligned with the pain I must be causing in the world. Instead, I keep the pain private, groaning inwardly, as so many of us must do, in precisely the way that energy companies hope that we’ll do: carry this fragment of pain as if it were only our own.  

I recently saw an article in the Guardian by a seventy-three year old grandmother who has started fighting against fracking in Lancaster county in the U.K. She talks about chaining herself alongside her son and friends to machinery at a fracking site near Blackpool. I skimmed the article and noticed a note in the comments section, which read, “wait til someone tells her that her house runs on natural gas.” I have heard various iterations of this comment over the years among former miners or current fracking workers who genuinely wonder how the world would operate without fossil fuels. Answering that how will have to wait for another essay. For now, what I want to know is: how do I, like the grandmother fracking activist, hold the irony of consumption alongside the dreams for the just, equitable, safe, and healthy future I want? How do I respond to those accusations that I, too, am a user of these resources? Well, perhaps I just say this: you’re right, I am.  

It seems appropriate that the crosswalk would force me to pause before a blur of cars to see not only what I am up against as a person trying to make sense of planetary collapse, but also, to see all of what I am in this moment, too: I am the biker, the pedestrian, the car, the driver, the rubber smears, the pigeons.  

Past | Future  

People speak about natural gas as the fuel of transition, the fuel that will finally end the fossilized energy era, the bridge between an energy past and an energy future. As just over thirty percent of electricity is still coming from natural gas in the U.S. right now, our national footing remains alarmingly on that bridge. I like to think that I saw beyond this bridge at a solar power rate case hearing for Tucson Electric Power in Tucson, in which dozens of community members stood in front of an all-male, all-white board of state corporation commissioners asking to reduce the costs of renewable solar power through the utility. The board would ultimately vote against their constituents’ wishes, but the state record permanently shows that, one-by-one, community members went up and declared their desire for solar into the microphone. For environmental justice, for equitable futures. One-by-one, they would leave the meeting in cars and on bikes, traveling back to fossil-fueled homes in which I imagine them lying awake as I did, all of our minds spinning relentlessly around the worlds we wanted.   

Kathryn Gougelet is a PhD student in cultural anthropology at University of California Santa Cruz. In 2018, she received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona. As an essayist, she writes about environmental health, pain, and justice, and is currently working on an essay collection about the lives people build around extractive industries across the United States. Her recent writing has appeared in The Normal School, Terrain.org, and Essay Daily. Follow her on Twitter @kgougelet.

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