MONTROSE, Pa. — In the doomsday scenario pushed by Republicans during the presidential campaign, a Democratic victory would spell the end of Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale industry. Communities enriched by the vast natural-gas reserves beneath them would wither and die if Joe Biden won.
Here in Susquehanna County, more than 1,000 active wells have been drilled over the last decade to extract gas from beneath the rolling farmland — the contentious process known as fracking. The GOP’s scare tactics were meant to drive registered voters of both stripes and no stripes, a total of 27,228, into the protective embrace of Donald Trump. But most of the residents interviewed by The Inquirer postelection, people familiar with fracking and the royalty checks it brings in, said they knew it wouldn’t be going away anytime soon, even under a Biden administration.
It’s “impossible for Joe Biden to stop fracking,” said Marvin Durland, a lifelong Democrat. “Now, he might make it tougher and have more laws on it. But that’s a good thing.”
President Trump still swept the county, about 150 miles north of Philadelphia, and his portion of the total vote bumped up slightly to 69.7%, from 68.6% in 2016. Biden came in at 28.5%, but pulled in 20% more votes than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. Richard Ainey, chairman of the county Democratic Party, called that a moral victory — a sign that Trump himself, not fracking, was the issue.
“That means I had Republicans and Independents vote for Biden,” he said.
Born in Scranton, about 30 minutes south of the Susquehanna County line, Biden said repeatedly that he wouldn’t enact a fracking ban in Pennsylvania or “anywhere else.” And that likely cost him votes, according to Maya van Rossum, CEO of the nonprofit watershed conservation group Delaware Riverkeeper Network. Many in the anti-fracking column were resolved to vote for Biden, no matter what, she said, but “some said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ ”
Ainey, a former mayor and grocery store owner in New Milford, described himself as a conservative Democrat who could pass for a moderate Republican, adding, “You’ll find that a lot in this county.” Durland, who lives across a creek in Brooklyn Township, had “Biden-Harris” and “We Support the Police” signs pegged into his lawn.
In Susquehanna County, the benefits and drawbacks of fracking cross party lines, affecting both Republicans and Democrats. Many landowners receive royalties from the gas companies and have wells on their properties. Durland gets a check. Ainey does, too. Susan Chance, an environmental educator who stood among solar panels, Biden signs, and a Subaru wagon outside a Bridgewater Township home, said she opposed fracking. She also gets a check, albeit a small one.
“[The gas companies] told me, ‘Why don’t you just take the money? Because we’re going to go underneath the land and take it either way,” Chance said. “A lot of months I don’t get anything. Last month I got $27. It’s not like I’m getting rich.”
Alan Hall, a Republican and Susquehanna County commissioner, said the gas industry has paid out $2 billion in royalties to property owners over the last decade. He said the industry has helped fund hospitals, community centers, and fire stations. Cabot Oil & Gas is Pennsylvania’s second-largest producer of natural gas, but the dominant one in the county with 800 wells.
Ainey said he was able to eliminate property taxes in New Milford thanks to impact fees paid by the gas companies. “There’s no such thing as a poor municipality here,” he said.
Cabot, headquartered in Houston with an office in Pittsburgh, foresees a long future in the county, said George Stark, the company’s director of external affairs. “The easy math is 30 years of drilling at today’s standard,” he said. “We have the ability to drill 100 wells per year, and we can see clearly a location for 3,000 additional wells.”
In turn, Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum & Natural Gas is expanding, moving from New Milford to a larger space in Tunkhannock, Wyoming County. The program, founded in 2009 with Cabot’s help, has 30 to 40 graduates per year and offers associate degrees in petroleum and natural gas technology and business, plus several certificates.
“We don’t have enough graduates for all the jobs that need to be filled,” said Sue Gumble, an alum who is now the school’s program director.
A recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that 20,146 people are employed in Pennsylvania’s oil and natural gas industry. GasSearch Drilling Services, a subsidiary of Cabot, is the top employer in the county.
But parts of Susquehanna County are reckoning with fracking-related pollution, including one homeowner who says his $400,000 house is worth nothing because his water supply is ruined.
In June, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro filed criminal charges against Cabot, alleging the company’s methods caused methane to seep into the water supply of Dimock, a small Susquehanna County community that’s become ground zero for the anti-fracking cause, the place activists point to when people say the industry is safe.
“They put their bottom line ahead of the health and safety of Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said of Cabot at the time.
Last week, a New York City law firm announced a class-action lawsuit against Cabot, alleging it misled investors about potential civil or criminal liabilities “with respect to environmental matters,” causing its stock to trade at “artificially inflated prices.”
Stark, of Cabot, said the criminal case was pending, and he couldn’t immediately be reached for comment about the lawsuit.
Ray Kemble, a longtime fracking critic who lives on seven acres in Dimock, said his well has been contaminated by drilling, and that he could light his tap water on fire. He has to go to a hydrant to fill a 250-gallon tank known as a “buffalo.” He said he’s in litigation with Cabot and would like to get a sit-down with Biden.
“I’m a Republican, but I didn’t vote Republican, I’ll say that,” Kemble said.
Polls leading up the 2020 election showed that a majority of registered voters in Pennsylvania supported fracking bans, and many leading Democratic candidates, including Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, supported bans. However, most natural gas drilling is centered in conservative counties like Susquehanna, Tioga, and Bradford, and those same polls showed that 77% of Republicans supported fracking.
Ainey scoffed at the notion that Sanders or Warren would have gained traction in Susquehanna County. “There’s a reason they weren’t the candidates,” he said.
Karen Feridun, of the environmental activist group Berks Gas Truth, said it’s a myth and a “lazy assumption” that anti-fracking candidates can’t win in Pennsylvania. As proof, she cited victories by State Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, who serves South Philadelphia’s 184th District, and State Rep. Sara Inamorato, who serves parts of Pittsburgh and environs; both are Democrats from areas with little to no fracking.
“I’m not thrilled by a Biden administration,” Feridun said. “He’s never been anti-fracking.”
Ainey said he’s not sure if a candidate to the left of President-elect Biden will gain traction in Susquehanna County. “2024 is already interesting,” he said.
Hall, the Republican county commissioner, said he thinks any anti-fracking sentiment locally is coming from outsiders, particularly from “New Jersey, Philadelphia, Long Island, and New York City,” who looked to rent or buy rural property during the pandemic.
But Dominic Micalizzi didn’t move to Susquehanna County from any of those places. He grew up in the Binghamton, N.Y., area and, after college, moved 10 miles south, over the state line, to Brackney. He campaigned for Sanders during the Democratic primary and at age 20 cast his first vote ever, for Biden. Wearing a shirt that memorialized Breonna Taylor, the Black medical worker shot by Louisville police during a botched raid, Micalizzi wouldn’t pass for a moderate Republican here.
The next presidential election, he said, will have starker contrasts — and a candidate who will take on fracking here.
“At least I hope so,” he said outside a Dunkin’ Donuts in Montrose. “The Democrats can’t move more to the center on fracking or anything, or they’ll lose who they are and lose all their young voters.”