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The Marcellus Shale is a deep natural gas reserve running under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, and Virginia. The Utica Shale is even deeper and larger, covering parts of these states plus Kentucky and Tennessee. For the last several years, the Marcellus has been the focus of a huge boom in exploration and extraction, and more recently activity has also started in the Utica (especially in Ohio and West Virginia). New drilling technologies, like the combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, have made these deposits—long considered too difficult and expensive to drill—accessible to the industry.

Some states open the door, others not

Currently, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia are at the heart of the eastern shale gas leasing and drilling boom, with tens of thousands of wells drilled and permits for thousands more already issued. In December 2014, New York announced it would prohibit high volume hydraulic fracturing in the state due to growing evidence of damage to the environment and human health. The process has also been on hold in Maryland due to public opposition and an in-depth review of risks and impacts; however, in November 2014 the state completed that work and issued regulations, signaling the possibility that drilling could move forward. In the meantime, gas production has expanded in Pennsylvania and Ohio—giving rise to plans for a network of new pipelines and compressor stations region-wide to get the gas to market, as well as increasing volumes of waste that must be managed and disposed of.

Fracturing’s checkered history

Alongside a rapid increase in wells and political support for natural gas has been widespread public concern over health and environmental impacts—as well as a growing body of scientific research and documentation of water and air pollution from chemicals, well sites, infrastructure, and waste. Loopholes in several national laws, outdated state regulations, inadequate oversight, and lax enforcement, and have made drilling much easier for industry—and life much harder for communities.