Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Marcellus

Illustrations by Angelina Castillo and Daniel Sitts.

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Marcellus

Illustrations by Angelina Castillo and Daniel Sitts.


When it falls into water, dust changes its name to silt. When silt settles, particle by sinking particle, to the bottom of an ocean, it can be pressed into the rock called shale— but only if it is undisturbed by currents or waves or the flicking rhythm of fins. To make shale, the sea must be unceasingly calm.

Shale is the offspring of stillness and time.

Four hundred million years ago, a sea covered what is now upstate New York. Silt descended through its unmoving waters. No one stood on the shoreline and named this ocean. Four hundred million years ago preexists names. Pre-exists speech. Preexists songs, petroglyphs, and fire. Pre-exists mammary glands, umbilical cords, backbones, wings, and four-chambered hearts. Pre-exists lungs. Pre-exists anyone, of any species, standing on the shoreline.

But, four hundred million years ago in the shallow, unmoving sea that covered what is now upstate New York, there were sea lilies. And there were squids. And, of course, plankton, and, hence—as a consequence of their busy, photosynthesizing chlorophyll— there was oxygen. But not a lot. Not yet. So when the squids and lilies died and sank into the motionless silt below, their bodies did not decompose as ours might today. Instead, they turned into bubbles of methane. And, ultimately, into bubbles of methane trapped in shale.

The Marcellus shale is a graveyard. Some would say its creation did not preexist God.


Methane is called natural gas by the energy industry, which seeks to blast apart the Marcellus shale with a combination of explosives, water, and chemicals. The industry’s name for this process is high-volume slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing. The other name for it is fracking.

Not so long ago, the natural gas inside the Marcellus was considered unrecoverable because it is scattered as a fizz of petrified bubbles. It is not continuous. It does not flow. But fracking, a technology pioneered by Halliburton, changed all that.

A drill bores straight down a mile or so until it strikes the methaneinfused shale. Turning sideways, the drill tunnels horizontally for another mile. The cuttings are removed from the borehole. A steel pipe goes down and around the bend. Cement is poured around it. Down go the explosives.


A motionless, 400-million-yearold world explodes.

Everything is moving now. Into the rubble goes a slurry of water, sand, and chemicals. Into the rubble goes 10,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. Shattered and bloated with fluid, the Marcellus gives up its dead. Up the borehole flows the methane. It is captured and purified. Condensed. Compressed. And sent into a pipeline.

The water and chemicals forced into the fractured shale also flow back up. But not all of it. Some 40 to 70 percent stays behind in the wreckage.

Those who find all this obscene call it fracking. Gas industry representatives hate this word. They call what they do hydraulic fracturing. Or if it must be called by a pet name, then, then for chrissake, omit the offending k. As in, “Frac’ing has been used for years to crack gas-bearing rock formations.”

The gas industry is losing the spelling battle. The Associated Press now openly uses the word fracking. So does The New York Times.

Anti-fracking activists hate the word natural gas. It’s a fossil fuel, for chrissake. Natural gas is about as natural as asphalt. So let’s call a nonrenewable spade a spade. It’s methane. Natural gas is winning the name battle. So far.


Marcellus was a general in Caesar’s army who gained fame for the sacking of Syracuse and for the battle of Gaul. The man was a bona fide military genius. The sword of Rome was the name they gave to him. But, in the end, outwitted and outmaneuvered, Marcellus perished on the battlefield.

Some historians say that accounts of the military feats attributed to him were, well, embellished.

Marcellus had no exit plan. Old story.


About that silt. It came from an ancient mountain range to the east that entirely eroded into the nameless and unmoving sea that once covered upstate New York.

Along with all the sediment, these dissolving mountains contributed to the marine abyss various elements: Mercury. Arsenic. Lead. Barium. Chromium. Uranium. Radium. Strontium. They are still down there, locked up in the shale along with the methane bubbles. The Marcellus also contains carbon-based vapors. Like toluene, which is a brain poison. And benzene, a known cause of leukemia and destroyer of human sperm.

The Marcellus also holds within its fissures a veritable River Styx’ worth of brine— which is to say, super-concentrated seawater.

Now that Pennsylvania has banned the discharge of frack flowback into streams and rivers, Ohio is receiving it by the truckload. Where did you say the drill cuttings are being dumped? The Marcellus is radioactive.


Pandora, baby. Don’t open that lid.


Called deep life, microbial communities exist in subsurface geological strata far below—perhaps miles below—the Earth’s sunlit surface. This is a new discovery.

The old assumption—that life is an exterior phenomenon—is wrong. According to the March 2011 issue of Geology, researchers now believe that the deep life is ubiquitous and makes up a large proportion of the total mass of living organisms on Earth, inhabiting rocky zones far deeper than presumed possible even a few years ago.

Moreover, these life forms—still unnamed—show signs of interacting with the minerals around them, actively shaping their habitat to suit themselves. Without readily available electron acceptors, some grow nanowires, which they use to transfer electrons directly into the rocks around them. Some substitute arsenic for phosphorus in the strands of their DNA.

It is likely that these interactions are shaping our planet’s element cycles. Ergo, they are modifying our climate in ways we do not yet understand. The discovery of deep life surprised everyone.

The Marcellus is an ecosystem. It is alive.

Some might add here: God is not surprised.


The presence of life in gas-containing shales is why fracking fluids contain powerful biocides. These organisms slime up the pipes. So poison is deployed.


Marcellus is a mathematical word problem that increases fluency with the place values of very large numbers. Feel free to use a calculator.

One frack job requires 2 to 8 million gallons of fresh water, between 10,000 and 40,000 gallons of chemicals, and at least 1,000 diesel truck trips. Between 34,000 and 95,000 wells are planned for New York State. Each well can be fracked several times.

To estimate the minimum volume of chemicals that will be pumped into the ground, add four zeroes to 34,000 and multiply by a number between 1 and 4.

To determine how many gallons of fresh water will be turned into frack fluid, add to 34,000 six or seven zeroes. Divide that product by 2 to determine, roughly, how many gallons of flowback fluid will come back out of the hole and require disposal somewhere.

Use that same number to approximate how many gallons of water will remain buried in the fractured bedrock.

To 34,000, add three zeroes to determine the number of diesel truck trips that will be added to the roadways of upstate New York.


Assume the number of 18-wheelers hauling haz mat equals x.

Assume an icy, two-lane road.

Add a teenage driver.

Assume the child is your own.


Marcellus is a minor character in Hamlet who misleads the hero and encourages him to ignore the voice of his father’s ghost.

You’ll recall the final scene in which everyone dies from the deployment of poison-tipped spears. You’ll recall that, before everyone is poisoned, Marcellus utters the immortal line, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”

Okay, knock it off. Fracking is not a Shakespearean tragedy. In spite of industry’s aura of inevitability, the outcome here is far from predestined. The best science shows us that we could entirely end our dependency on fossil fuels within 30 years if only we were willing to cut our energy consumption by half. The best economics tell us that investments in shale gas are obstacles for investments in renewable energy.

Stop dithering. Do something.


Marcellus is a village in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Located near Syracuse, it became the namesake for our bedrock because, in this place, the otherwise subterranean shale layer emerges from the ground and forms an unusual outcropping. You can go there. You can touch it with your hands.


Marcellus is a retirement account. A college fund. A nest egg. A rich uncle. Marcellus can save the farm. Marcellus can pay the taxes, the medical bills, the credit cards, the car loans. Marcellus can tithe the church, build the addition, roof the house, pick up the check. Marcellus is $5,000 an acre and 12 percent royalties. A goose. A golden egg. A windfall. A shale play. A sure thing. The end of debt. Place your bets.

Marcellus is methane. Marcellus is a pond bubbling with methane. Marcellus is a pond bubbling with methane, a child with recurrent nosebleeds, and a stillborn calf.

Two questions for the guy uploading his PowerPoint presentation:

Can cement-encased steel pipe last 400 million years?

What are your thoughts on Matthew 7:14? “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid ground.”


The Marcellus is the bedrock of New York. It underlies our drinking-water aquifers. To blow it up, we have to puncture holes through these aquifers.

The Marcellus is the bedrock of New York. To blow it up, we have to fill the air with smog, soot, and diesel exhaust. These pollutants are linked to cancer, preterm birth, stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. New data suggest links to memory loss and cognitive disorders as well.

The Marcellus is the bedrock of New York. Above it are vineyards and fields of organic heirloom wheat that provide flour to local bakeries. Demand for Finger Lakes Riesling and artisanal loaves of bread is robust—but the farmland is surrounded by land under lease to the gas companies. Now what?

This is our body. This is our blood. Other than the 46 chromosomes bequeathed at conception, children are the rearranged molecules of water, air, and food.

Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who . . .

I’m sorry. I’m having a hard time with those words.

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