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The United States is the only country in the world where property rights commonly extend “up to heaven and down to hell,” which means that landowners have the exclusive right to lease their subsurface mineral estates to petroleum companies. Shale gas extraction—commonly known as fracking—is often portrayed as an energy revolution that will transform the American economy and geopolitics. But in greater Williamsport, Pennsylvania, landowners leasing their subsurface mineral estates and fracking are personal.
Sociologist Colin Jerolmack spent eight months living with rural communities outside of Williamsport as they confronted the tension between property rights and the commonwealth, and he joins us to share from the resulting, deeply intimate book, Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town. In conversation with Responsible Drilling Alliance’s Ralph Kisberg, Jerolmack reveals how the decision to lease brings financial rewards but can cause irreparable harm to neighbors, to communal resources like air and water, and even to oneself. He provides a vivid and heartbreaking account of what happened in a rural Pennsylvania town as a result of what is largely a private choice that millions of ordinary people make without the public’s consent, despite it often being one of the most momentous decisions about the well-being of our communities and our planet.
Ultimately, Jerolmack presents us with a question that has been brought into stark contrast over the last year especially: how might our American ideas of freedom change when personal choices can undermine our neighbors’ liberty, and how can individual rights bring unintended consequences for us all?
Colin Jerolmack is a professor of sociology and environmental studies at New York University and the author of The Global Pigeon.
Ralph Kisberg is a co-founder and consultant to the Board of the nonprofit Responsible Drilling Alliance (RDA), an organization to educate and advocate on shale gas development issues.