People muster data, facts and studies to support their positions about using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract previously inaccessible oil and gas deposits. The number of scientists standing on one side of the debate over whether it's harmful to the environment rarely convinces anyone on the other side to switch camps. It appears to be a stalemate.
One fact about fracking is undeniable, however: It creates jobs, and those jobs pay well. The work of extracting oil from a well that might go as deep as 10,000 feet, where it then turns and can extend another 10,000 feet, typically requires several companies. Some specialize in drilling wells, others in managing the flow out of the well of water, natural gas, oil and fracking materials (proprietary blends of chemicals, gels, sand and water), just to name a couple. It is not uncommon for someone with a high school diploma and no experience in the oilfield to make $100,000 a year; experienced workers can make much more.
Oilfield jobs pay well because the work is dangerous. The work does not stop for cold, rain, wind or darkness. Oilfield hands might work seven days a week, for 12 hours each day — more if the situation demands. They might work that schedule from four to 12 weeks before they have two weeks off to recover. Oilfield workers have been killed when pressurized piping has ruptured or when fires have raged out of control. Many more are injured in smaller accidents. I chose not to return to my job as a well tester (managing the flow out of the well) after another employee's error led to a roughly 17,000-gallon tank's overflowing and sending untold gallons of oil and fracking fluids raining down the ladder that I was climbing, soaking me and sending me sliding about 10 feet to the ground. In my first two weeks on the job, I brought home three times what I did in the same period as a third-year high school teacher with a master's degree.
Drilling regulations that would open a percentage of Garrett County to fracking were published in the Maryland Register Jan. 9, and comments were gathered through Feb. 9. Officials are now reviewing those comments, and the regulations could take effect later this year. Del. David Fraser-Hidalgo has sponsored the Protect Our Health and Communities bill, which would delay fracking the Marcellus Shale in western Maryland by eight years; a similar bill has also been cross filed in the Senate. Gov. Larry Hogan opposes the bill. If oil companies are allowed to frack western Maryland, much needed jobs will be created, and both sides of the science will continue their seemingly irresolvable debate.
But there is another aspect of fracking that rarely gets discussed. There is a distinct and, to my mind, irreparable harm that is done to the cultural landscape of a place when fracking comes to town. Thousands of workers will come from all over to work in the oilfield of western Maryland, but not all of them will permanently relocate — I worked near Williston, N.D. while living in Baltimore County. They will need temporary housing, and if North Dakota is any indication, some will live in camping trailers on lots that will rent for upward of a thousand dollars. Hastily constructed apartments will emerge within a landscape dotted with fires from natural gas flare stacks, and they will rent for much more than most locals can afford. Furthermore, transient workers tend not to value a place in the way that those who call that place "home" do. Work hard, play hard — and many in the oilfield look to play hard after swinging a 10-pound sledgehammer for hours in the cold. I knew some workers who conserved their money to provide for their families; I knew others who trolled Backpage.com for prostitutes, who handed over their money to strippers who had flocked to Williston to partake in the economic boom and who consumed bottles of liquor mere hours before a shift. There are deleterious effects on a place with thousands of transients making a lot of money a long way from home. Williston's plague has been well documented.
In the short term, a flood of high-paying jobs into western Maryland seems inarguably positive. For an area of unparalleled natural and cultural beauty, however, the long-term effects will be irreversibly destructive. When the oil and the money are gone, western Maryland will not be the same home that it could have been.
Christian Zawojski is a former oilfield worker. His email is CLZawojski@gmail.com.