By Kenny Gould for The Fourth River
A native North Carolinian, Jimmy Guignard is the author of Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale (Texas A&M University Press, 2015). He co-edited a collection of essays with Thomas P. Murphy called Literature, Writing, and the Natural World, which appeared in 2009, and blogs at https://pipelineroad7.wordpress.com. When he’s not researching or writing about the gas industry, he teaches rhetoric, composition, and nature writing at Mansfield University, and he chairs the English and Modern Languages Department. Every fall, he can be seen leading students on wheels, pied piper-style, over the hills and down the stairs of campus and town when he teaches mountain biking in the Outdoor Recreation Leadership program. Visit him on his website at http://jimmyguignard.com.
Tioga County, Pennsylvania, sits four hours northeast of Pittsburgh, an hour and a half southwest of Ithaca, and an hour west of Cherry Springs, one of the best places to stargaze in the country. The heavily wooded landscape plays host to Mansfield University (mascot: The Mountie), as well as a variety of forest creatures: ruffed grouse, pileated woodpeckers, bears. It’s a wild place, mostly state land and farms, reminiscent of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans. For Jimmy Guignard, who grew up in North Carolina, Tioga County was the perfect place to raise a family.
But in 2009, something strange happened: trucks of all shapes and sizes began rolling through his town. One local described the situation as similar to the famous Ride of the Valkyries scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, in which a myriad noisy helicopters descend on a quiet Vietnamese village. Almost overnight, a one stoplight town just south of the New York-Pennsylvania border became the center of a nationwide discussion about fracking.
Fracking is a process used to extricate gas from the ground by which a high-pressured mixture of water, sand, and chemicals gets pumped into a vein of shale, cracking the rock and allowing trapped gas to flow out. On the one hand, researchers estimate that fracking could offer gas security to the United States and Canada for the next hundred years, not to mention thousands of new jobs; on the other, it raises environmental concerns, as it uses huge amounts of water and has the potential to release dangerous gasses and materials into the air and water table.
Guignard, now Associate Professor of English and the Chair of the English and Modern Languages Department at Mansfield University, recently sat down with The Fourth River to discuss his book, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living Above the Marcellus Shale, as well as the debate over fracking. He comes at the discussion from a unique angle: the son of a truck driver, Guignard worked for a general contractor out of Charlotte, North Carolina, for six years before returning to school for his Bachelor of Arts in English. Even as he pursued his degree, he continued working in construction, building houses and framing decks in Surfside Beach, South Carolina. He then moved near Cullowhee, North Carolina, for a Master’s degree at Western Carolina University, and two years after that traveled to Reno, Nevada, to get his Ph.D.
Which is to say that Guignard represents the everyman: born to a working class family, he has a penchant for raucous, long-winded stories, speaks with a soft Carolina drawl, calls people ‘dude,’ wears flannel and boots, and knows more facts about beer than the average American knows state capitals. And to the everyman, the oil industry portrays itself as the harbinger of renewal, prosperity, and jobs. For an economically depressed area, fracking often means salvation. Those with lots of land but very little means can lease the drilling rights of their property to Royal Dutch Shell or another gas company and collect a check each month for hundreds or even thousands of dollars an acre.
“How,” Guignard asks, “are you going to say to someone who may be land rich but barely has enough to keep up their property, ‘Hey, you shouldn’t lease?’”
Guignard knows of people who became millionaires overnight by leasing their land to oil companies—not many, he stresses, but a few. When the everyman in him looks at the oil industry, it sees the potential for financial security.
But the academic in Guignard sees things differently. He earned his doctorate in a field of academia called rhetoric, which looks at how different forms of communication cause people to think a certain way or adopt certain attitudes. And from this perspective, he doesn’t like the way in which the gas industry chooses to represent itself: for instance, in chapter five of his book, he talks about the American flag that flew outside the Tioga County offices of Shell, a company based in the Netherlands.
“There are many foreign companies at work in the Marcellus,” he writes, referring to the Marcellus Shale, the oil-rich vein of sedimentary rock found under Tioga County. “Schlumberger… is based in France. Talisman is based in Canada; Reliance, India; Statoil, Norway. I’m not naive about how the global economy works, but any foreign company flying the American flag creates a different impression of the company with the public.”
As a rhetorician, he was also disturbed by non-disclosure agreements, which the oil industry requires people to sign in settlements over environmental or health concerns. When Shell bought one neighbor’s property for $750,000, the neighbors weren’t allowed to tell their side of the story—not what happened, or how they felt, or even why Shell bought them out.
Equally disturbing is what Guignard sees as a repeat of history: “There was a boom in California in the 1920s—you can read Upton Sinclair’s 1927 book, Oil, and there are sections of that book that you could pull out and pop into 2012 and they would sound exactly the same,” he says. “In the 1970s, Texas also had a gas boom. In 2009 and 2010, a second boom used three times as many wells but only produced about eighty percent of the product. You hear the industry, and it’s all roses. We’re gonna be here forever! People are gonna make so much money! But what happens when the industry leaves?”
And the industry has left—not completely, but the boom that rocked Tioga County in 2009 and 2010 has taken a definitively downward trajectory. In 2015, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on leasing any more state park and forest land to drillers. And fortunately—or unfortunately, depending on which side of the table you sit—the price for gas currently sits at two dollars and fifteen cents per thousand cubic feet, much less than the $4 to $7 per thousand cubic feet that experts say is required to make a drilling operation economically feasible.
Guignard’s book, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone, gets at the central conflict felt by many of Tioga County’s forty-some-thousand residents, and many concerned citizens around the country, and the world: to frack or not to frack? The book is not a polemic, but rather a well-researched, first person account of what it was like to live in Tioga County during a period of intense tension. Instead of arguing for a side, Guignard presents his biases and observations, and encourages readers to form their own opinions about the issue.
“I have really deep problems with extractive industries,” Guignard says. “At the same time, I am absolutely one hundred percent fully implicated in them, and I cannot get out of that. The question is not so much whether or not we do it—the question is how we go about it. We can do it carefully, we can do it recklessly, we can do it in a way that only includes the perspective of the industry, or we can do it in a way that includes multiple perspectives.”
Kenny Gould studied at Duke and Oxford Universities, and now Chatham University, where he’s pursuing his MFA. His non-fiction has appeared in Time Out New York, mental_floss, and Gear Patrol; his fiction with The Manifest-Station and The Head & the Hand Press. He currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where he teaches creative writing, practices yoga, and brews beer. Follow him on Twitter at @kb_gould or online at kennygould.com.