The Yellow-Jackets’ Nest

October 19, 2012

By Jimmy

Doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface.

When I lived in Mississippi, I found a yellow-jackets’ nest between two pines in our backyard. I showed it to my Dad, who warned me and my brother to stay away from the nest until he could take care of it. That night, I watched from the driveway as he walked over to the nest with the gas can and poured gas down the hole. (Not cool, I know, but this was almost forty years ago.) He walked back, put the gas can up, and we went inside to get ready for bed.

The next day, my brother and I followed Daddy back out to the nest. This trip, he had a shovel, his entrenching tool from the Guard, if I remember correctly, and he dug up the nest. Appearing as a small hole about two inches in diameter, the entrance gave way to a chamber about eighteen inches in diameter when he sunk his shovel in and lifted. Dead yellow-jackets fell to the ground, mixing with the soil. We looked closely at the combs layered in the nest, where we saw varying stages of larval development. Pretty amazing. But what struck me most about the nest was the way a small hole concealed a big one.

We’ve had three yellow-jacket nests in our yard this year, which I reluctantly destroyed, and which took me back to that episode in Mississippi. Digging out one of the nests around our house got me to thinking about another problem with the gas industry phrase, “less than five acres”: what’s on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s underground.

If a yellow-jackets’ nest’s entrance is only two inches across where it enters the ground, yet eighteen inches across underground, then we’re talking about a 900% increase—a pretty big underground disturbance. And that’s just in diameter. I’m not talking about volume. (I haven’t tried to figure that out yet.) When we look at drilling sites, we see something similar occurring. We have a five-acre pad, from which as many as eight wells can be drilled several thousand feet vertically, then turned and drilled horizontally over 5000’. When the drill bit stops spinning, we’re talking about a well that could be two miles across as the crow flies. That’s a hell of a lot bigger disturbance than “less than five acres” implies.

Don’t get too close.

And there’s more. The gas industry wants to maximize profits, so they are going to site wells in such a way that the ends of the horizontal wellbores overlap. Imagine a pad A. Two bores are drilled from pad A. At the end, the bores will be pretty far apart, the same way our fingers, attached at the palm, can be spread apart into a V. That spread leaves a lot of untapped gas. Now they site pad B about two miles from pad A and drill toward it, ending B’s horizontal bore somewhere between A’s two horizontal bores. To get an idea of the overlap I’m talking about, form that V again with your right index and middle fingers. Now, extend your left index finger from the opposite direction and slide it into the open end of the V until your fingernails line up. Ta-da. More gas to access. (Mind your Freudian readings. This is a family blog.) Now imagine those bores slightly overlapping all over the Marcellus Shale. That’s a tad more disturbance than “five acres.” We just can’t see it. As one of my colleagues said, “They don’t have to sweep the mess under the rug. It’s already under the rug.”

Then there’s the volume of rock disturbed by the fracking itself, which occurs in the horizontal part of the wellbore. A geology colleague told me that, roughly speaking, one could assume about fifty feet of fracturing out from the wellbore in all directions. We’re talking a horizontal cylinder of disturbance 5000’ long and 100’ in diameter. Multiply that by six or eight wellbores, and we’re talking a lot of fractured rock. And that’s just for one well. Makes yellow-jackets look almost lazy.

It’s true that all this fracturing happens thousands of feet underground. The theory is that it won’t be a big deal. It’s also true that what’s underground is connected to the surface (Marcia Bjornerud shows this beautifully), and that’s where we live. In a transparent world, the industry would provide us with a map (rough is fine) that details the extent of their disturbances underground and admit that they are causing a big disturbance. Would there have been more of an uproar about development, much earlier, if we had a better sense of the underground footprint of the industry? That’s the map I want to see, anyway.

People can argue: “But we do know how far they reach. You just gave us the lengths of the bores.” That’s true, and we can get an idea from the number of wells drilled, the number projected to be drilled, and other information we’ve received. It’s also true that we can’t actually look at the extent of the fracturing underground except as representations, as a map. But we care about what we can see. Humans are shallow. Wells, however, are not. The damage may never be as clear as the grass killed around the entrance to a yellow-jackets’ nest filled with gasoline. But there’s damage nonetheless, and lots of it. Some of it won’t affect us, some of it will. Who, where, and how much is anybody’s guess.

The way this information is presented to us strikes me as a problem of imagination. We need imagination for what we can’t see. We already have a talent for “externalizing” costs, that is, figuring out ways to make other people (we can’t see) or the environment (usually, somewhere else) pay some of the costs of our impacts. If we can’t imagine the scope of the damage easily, then we will have a hard time imagining the costs, both monetary and otherwise. Imagination doesn’t grow out of nothing, but reflects our world as much as it shapes it by enabling us to see new or different possibilities. If we had real information, we wouldn’t need to work so hard to imagine what might occur. That’s why we don’t see maps limning the bores drilled from the pads, and do hear about disturbances of only five acres. It hampers our ability to imagine the scope of the disturbance. It doesn’t mean that we can’t, just not as easily. That favors the industry.

We have a similar problem with cars. If I were in charge, and after I had outlawed weak, fizzy, yellow beer (PBR exempted), I’d lobby for all vehicle exhaust pipes to be moved into the driver’s line of sight. Exhaust pipes should come right out of the middle of the hood, not out from under the back bumper. We should be able to see where the C02 spews from every time we press a gas pedal. (And, yes, I see exhaust of the cars in front of me, but that’s not my exhaust.) My point here is not that we don’t see or understand how we create pollution or don’t feel responsible. It’s just that we do a good job of keeping distance between ourselves and our impacts, and the industry plays into this by choosing which drilling impacts they show us, and how. Lilace recounts one industry worker’s view here. Based on what he knows, he is imagining a future for this place, one that he won’t stick around for. Perhaps Penn State’s Terry Engelder comes closest to providing us with the most honest view of the potential impacts. Claiming that Pennsylvanians are “sacrificing” for the rest of the country suggests a bigger disturbance than “only five acres.” We’re talking serious density, serious disturbance.

The way we see nature is the way we use nature, whether poisoning yellow-jackets, driving our cars, or drilling for gas. We need better maps. And better, braver imaginations.