Fighting Climate Change Is Hard When You Live on a Natural Gas Reserve

When even environmentalists sell the rights to their land, you know it’s bad.

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012.
A Consol Energy horizontal gas drilling rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, in April 2012.

Mladen Antonov/Getty Images

Cindy Bower, a silver-haired but spry former elementary school teacher, says she’s always cared about the environment—she participated in the very first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. She recalled carrying signs for the planet almost 50 years ago as we nursed coffee one morning in her sunroom overlooking the sloping fields and dense forest that make up her 150 bucolic acres in Pennsylvania’s Appalachian foothills. Bower also told me how worried she was about the land that stretched out before us—how she thought it was in danger of being sacrificed to sate America’s centurylong “addiction” to fossil fuels.

For her, the issue was not abstract: Over the last several years, she watched as fracking, the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock thousands of feet underground, transformed her sleepy hamlet of Trout Run into a de facto industrial park. When I spoke to her, within a quarter-mile of her house earth-movers had leveled the side of a mountain to build a well pad, two massive drilling rigs were operating around the clock, pipeline right-of-ways had scarred a forested tract of state game land, tractor trailer caravans were snarling traffic and pulverizing the road, and a 50-foot plume of fire was shooting out of a flare stack.

Bower believed it was important to keep some places natural, “undisturbed by the human hand.” She said she was trying to do her part to save “special places.” She and her husband placed a conservation easement on their property to enshrine its pastoral character, and she sits on the board of an environmental organization that has filed a lawsuit alleging the state’s leasing of public forests for gas drilling violated residents’ constitutional “right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural … environment.”

Of all the landowners I befriended during the eight months I lived in northern Pennsylvania and researched fracking, Bower was one of the last I expected to lease her property’s mineral rights to an energy company. Until she did—albeit with significant environmental restrictions, most notably a clause that the company could not disturb the surface of her land. She admitted that she “didn’t need the money.” Rather, in the end Bower said she saw the leasing bonus as “compensation” for the quality-of-life and environmental disturbances she had already endured for years because of her neighbors’ decision to lease their land. Besides, she concluded that holding out would not alter the pace and scope of fracking in the area. Entangled in a real-life collective action problem, Bower—along with almost all of her neighbors—behaved precisely as rational choice theories would predict. Or, as she put it: “I’m not gonna be a martyr for this.”

In the end, the drama that played out in Bower’s small town over who has the right to what resources is, in one light, a microcosm of the drama that is being played out on a global scale. Climate change is the ultimate collective action problem. Most people—and nations—agree that we must drastically curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, but nobody wants to do it, and nobody wants to pay for it. The reason is simple: The benefits of continuing to pollute are immediate and tangible for each actor, while the costs of changing are diffuse and abstract. This makes the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, signed in New York City on April 22—Earth Day, again—by over 150 nations, a particularly remarkable achievement (despite its limitations). Under the accord, every country has agreed to forgo some amount of expected utility (e.g., keeping coal in the ground) for the greater good—namely, holding the increase in the global average temperature to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

With the accord signed, the most important question we now face is how do we get people to cooperate to achieve that goal? The social dilemma exemplified by Bower’s situation offers a window into the challenges we face to inspire in all our citizens a spirit of collectivism.

For the most part, shale gas development can only take place in the U.S. if individuals agree to lease their property’s subsurface mineral rights to energy companies. (We’re somewhat unique in this—in most other countries, the government retains mineral rights.) For people who own more than a few acres, it’s almost impossible to say no to leasing if an energy company comes knocking. In exchange for hosting industrial infrastructure in their yards, including gas wells, pipelines, compressor stations, and storage tanks, or for allowing horizontal drilling a mile or more beneath them, lessors receive bonuses—sometimes thousands of dollars per acre—and are entitled to monthly royalties that can total thousands of dollars if gas is extracted from under their land.

In regions like Appalachian Pennsylvania, land is personal: Often, it is passed down through generations and property rights are sacrosanct. So when the travelling salespeople known as “landmen” fanned out across back roads seeking to convince landowners to lease their properties, almost everyone took for granted that the decision was a personal matter. Although there are notable instances of organized resistance in parts of the U.S. that have resulted in fracking bans at the municipal (e.g., Longmont, Colorado), county (e.g., Prince George, Maryland), and even state (e.g., New York) level, the situation in rural Pennsylvania is far more typical—there were no public referenda on whether “the community” should allow drilling and almost everybody signed. One landman told me he “feels like Ed McMahon” because so many landowners acted as if they won a sweepstakes when he knocked on their door.

The social dynamic propelled by fracking is a textbook illustration of what Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons”—a situation in which people are compelled to behave selfishly, even if they know that doing so is contrary to the common good and degrades shared resources like air or water.* They act this way because they know their self-sacrifice will have no effect unless everyone else behaves unselfishly as well. “If they could have guaranteed me that … any possible contamination stops at the property line, that my property would never be affected, I wouldn’t have leased,” Bower reasoned. Just about everyone around her, regardless of their economic circumstances or stance on climate change, applied the same logic—they would share some of the environmental costs of others’ decision to lease no matter what, so they might as well lease and make some money.

While fracking degraded common-pool resources like air, water, roads, and forests, it also had a profound impact on social resources. The tradition in rural Pennsylvania locales is to live and let live, I observed—they resolve most disagreements that arise through informal norms of neighborliness rather than the law. And while many long-term residents were fiercely committed to individual sovereignty, they have also historically been intensely communal (perhaps borne from the co-dependency so often required to eke out an existence in one of America’s poorest and most isolated regions). The fracking lottery has substantially improved the economic standing of some residents in Rust Belt towns, but it is also testing residents’ allegiance to their community. Next-door neighbors who never knew or cared about the boundary between their respective properties began researching deeds at the courthouse to ensure no one else wound up with a dime of their rightful lease bonus. Generations-old hunting camps and family farms became incorporated as limited liability corporations. And some residents who joined with their neighbors to collectively bargain with gas companies for better leasing terms became spiteful toward the handful of lucky lessors in their group who were “picked” to host the gas infrastructure that generates continuous royalties, while the rest of them absorbed spillover effects that debased their land—without receiving additional compensation.

While it would be imprudent to say that fracking is destroying community, for many residents the collective action problem introduced by fracking seemed to confirm their worst suspicions about human nature: It suddenly appeared as if everybody was just out for themselves. The sociological effect was a noticeable turning-inward among residents, a heightened sense that they were going it alone rather than in the same boat. Even four close-knit neighbors I met—who collectively sued a gas company that tainted their water—stopped holding weekend barbecues and gradually grew apart after the gas company pressured them to accept individual, and disparate, settlements. Placed into a situation where the optimal strategy was to defect rather than cooperate with one another, their sense of interconnectedness and mutual obligation withered.

The fact that even a well-to-do environmentalist felt compelled to act in a way that maximized her self-interest rather than promoted the resilience of her community and its natural assets indicates that there is something very wrong with the incentive structure for energy production in America. Combating climate change requires all of us to expand our horizon of moral concern, to sacrifice on behalf of people unknown and unborn. If even the methods we use to produce ostensibly greener forms of energy impoverish impacted residents’ sense of obligation to the people and landscapes just beyond their fencepost, we can hardly expect them to see themselves as global citizens ready to engage in the collectivist politics needed to prevent our planet from lapsing into abrupt and irreversible climate change.

Correction, May 20, 2016: An earlier version of this article misspelled Garrett Hardin’s last name. (Return.)